April 1st, 2014

And So I Continue to Read Books a Year After They've Come Out

Sofia Samatar's novel, A Stranger in Olondria, is filled with almost limitless invention.  She is not only capable of writing sentences like these -- "On the night of the stranger's arrival she burned a bowl of dried herbs in her room: I recognized, by their acrid smoke, the leaves that ward off leopard ghosts.  They were followed by pungent fumes against bats, leprosy, and falling sickness, as well as those which are said to rid human dwellings of long-toed spirits." -- she will continue with prose equally imaginative, on and on, until she has built up a world that seems as real, as strange and familiar, as any place we know.

I could go on quoting her beautiful, poetic sentences, finding them almost at random:  "Bain is, of course, the name of the Olondrian god of wine, whose eyes are 'painted like sunflowers,' who plays the sacred bone flute."  (Parenthetically, I love those quotation marks.  Someone in Olondria once said this about Bain, and it has become so proverbial that we are, "of course," supposed to know who it was.)  "There are younger merchants, too: slow-voiced men, gentlemen farmers, who dab at their eyes with muslin handkerchiefs; and in one corner a Kalak woman, one of Bain's old fishing people, sells the wind out of a great brass bell."  There are enough details here for twenty fantasy novels.

Someone who is not as enchanted by these descriptions would probably notice something it took me about fifty pages to realize, that there is not a lot of plot here.  I'm usually as much for plot as anyone, but if you can give me something just as good -- in this case, little explosions going off in my head, one by one, as we come to discover something else about this world -- I'll stick with you for a good long time.  People who read solely for plot, though, might not be as delighted with this book as I was.

So what is it about?  It's about Jevick, a young man from one of the Tea Islands, who has to visit Olondria after his father dies to sell his family's tea.  He's unusual in that he's learned to read, and has learned a lot about Olondria, and he spends most of his time there sight-seeing.  Then, at the Feast of Birds, he becomes haunted by  a woman he met on the boat over, a woman who has since died.  Her haunting is painful, causing nausea and headaches, and he must discover what she wants and how he can become free of her.  There are also factions that want to use him, those who want to contact the dead through the woman's ghost and those who believe that doing so is heretical.

And that's pretty much it.  Well, there's also a lot about love and different cultures and death -- and a very great deal about books and writers and stories.  "A book," says Samatar through the writer Vandos of Ur-Amakir, "is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears."  And "Elathuid the Voyager, who explored the Nissian coast" wrote, "I sat down in the wilderness with my books, and wept for joy." Anyone who's experienced this will enjoy exploring A Stranger in Olondria.