Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Review of "A Stranger in Olondria" - A Literary Adventure Fantasy

Sofia Samatar's "A Stranger in Olondria" is full of adventure, mythic tales, poetry, and parables. The boy Jevick longs to get away from his cruel father's island pepper plantation and imagines life in the capital city of Bain. His father brings him a tutor from Olondria, and Jevick learns to read and write the great city's literature. When his father dies, he finally gets his chance to travel to  the mainland. On the ship he briefly meets a girl, Jissavet.

Jissavet has a wasting disease called kyitna, which turns her hair red. Everyone but Jevick shuns her, because the disease is both communicable and fatal.

After some adventures in Bain where the naive boy is robbed, drugged, and kidnapped, he goes insane and is committed. While recovering, he hears that the girl he met on the ship has died and her body was not properly burned. He is shocked, as in his country, this is a sacred rite, or the spirit is doomed to walk the earth forever as an angel. The impressionable boy immediately becomes haunted by Jissavet and embarks on a quest to find her remains and burn them. The question is whether Jissavet will allow him to do this.

Set against the backdrop of the war between religion versus secularism, "A Stranger in Olondria" is basically a ghost story. But it is unusual in that in most "Western" ghost stories the ghost moves on once the reason it still hangs around is revealed. This ghost lingers around so long that the protagonist falls in love with her.  She claims she'll free him if he writes a vallon (epic poem) about her. In a sort of Stockholm Syndrome fraught with suffering, he says of her, "She was so alive, so alive I forgot that the name of the life she lived was death."

The language is dense and beautiful, and the reader will be rewarded for sticking with it to the wistful yet disquieting ending. Jevick has much to teach us.

"A Stranger in Olondria" has been nominated for a Nebula for best novel of 2013, and Samatar has been nominated for the John W. Campbell Award (best new writer) at the 2014 Hugos. Available from Small Beer Press or Amazon.

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