This seems fitting. A Stranger in Olondria often has a lot of these discursive descriptions running through it of a new town, a sea voyage, the carnival. The scene in which the protagonist – Jevick a pepper merchant’s son who takes over his father’s business – gets swept up in the wild and dangerous Feast of Birds when he arrives at a new city, is perhaps one of the best sections of the novel. This is where Samatar’s language comes in to its form – its vibrancy, the quick cut descriptions of sensation – is dizzying, an accurate representation of what it is like to be in a foreign carnival.
But this same dazzle is used to describe almost everything, and it is wearying, even too much. It seems that Jevick can’t enter a room in a house without it bursting with troughs that lure birds. This isn’t just a garden, it’s where a famous general hung himself from love sickness, a general who is never mentioned in the novel again. His father, a village elder, carries a staff decorated with red dye and then, at some point, it’s decorated with another colour, the significance of which is never explained. At one point Jevick is offered to sit down. But what’s he going to sit on? A chair. But not just any old chair, he is offered “a long, low object with a green silk shawl”. Some may find this detail enriching of this world. I couldn’t help but feel fatigued by this pointless embellishment.
I suppose part of the problem with fantasy / speculative fiction is that a novel has to spend a lot of time explaining a world which, up until now, didn’t exist, but one that has its customs and beliefs. What I like about A Stranger of Olondria is that it brings the written material of such various cultures together – there are many poems (including a five page narrative poem), lyrics and apocryphal stories of the different cultures. It is a book about the pleasures of reading, how immersed Jevick gets in books when he is introduced to them by his Olondrian tutor, when before he had only known of wooden blocks. But sometimes, these culture references are off the mark and completely unbelievable. The chanting and songs, especially, are cringe-worthy.
Bargemen sing “Long have I carried the king’s treasures. But the corals of Weile are not as red as your mouth”. Yo ho ho. One old country song runs “Little Leaf-Hands, go to draw water again in your old robe, the one your sister wore before you, the one that follows your breasts like rain”. Kumbya, m’Lord. People chant “Where shall I find the dawn? He has not pricked his foot on a thorn, he leaves no trail of blood”. No ifs, no buts, no education cuts.
This could be a problem with me as a reader; like someone with chronic constipation, I have trouble letting myself go. I’m an unbeliever because I don’t read fantasy / speculative fiction often and I am largely unfamiliar of the tropes. For example, a hurdle that seemed to get higher the more I approached it was names of people and towns. Adein and Bain are places and Sten and Jissi are people’s names. To me, they’re interchangeable, and often confusing. When Jevick is suspected of being a lunatic because he sees angels and is visited by the daughter of a Priest, who takes a shine to him, she tells him a long dramatic story about why she is drawn to him. It turns out she knew Lunre, who was her father’s only friend, who became an enemy in a tempestuous argument. Lunre was Jevick’s Olondrian tutor – but I had forgotten this fact, because I had to remember her name – Tialon – where he was staying – Avalei – and the name of the mental asylum he broke out of – Velvalinhu. I’m not saying that this novel should follow Frank from Stoke and how his French tutor Dennis used to be friends with Jenny, a vicar’s daughter, but the book should come with a glossary, not the hand-drawn map which I didn’t refer to once.
Although confusing and disorientating, I was thankful for the opportunity to read A Stranger in Olondria. It has made me curious to read more fantasy work. But I didn’t enjoy it, despite wanting to and reading several reviews of the novel and getting swept up in people’s positivity and excitement. It reminded me of my encounter with poetry, I would never have read it unless I was asked to at school. When I came back to it in my late teens, I found something dormant in what I read before – clarity and vivid emotion. I can only hope the same happens to me and Sofia Samatar’s novel, even if I am at Death’s door, where confusing people’s names isn’t the stuff of fantasy.
Alex the Unbeliever reads A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
In what may turn out to be a rather naive and fool-hardy venture, we at Holdfast have decided to attempt to spread the love of Speculative fiction by trying to convert some self-proclaimed 'Unbelievers.' New Unbeliever and poet Alex Macdonald has agreed to our little experiment, and here we offer up A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar for this first attempt to open his mind to the excellence of fantasy. This picky poet has a thing or two to say about Samatar's 'poetic' writing, but, whilst stating he did not completely enjoy it, didn't exactly say he hated it either, and is now 'curious' to read more fantasy...so, we have decided to call this a rather tenuous draw!
Unbeliever 1, Holdfast editors 1
If the fantasy or speculative fiction world ever claims to be under-read and deserving of a wider audience, it has competition in the poetry world. If this unbeliever is to believe Alain De Botton’s Religion for Atheists, the United Kingdom spends £6.7m on poetry books every year, compared to £67 million on Pringles. Whereas a popular fantasy book may sell upwards of one million copies, the most popular poetry book, even with several prizes under its belt, will be considered a roaring success if it sells over 10,000 copies. This is where I am coming from – a reader of poetry, someone who will sing its praises – and I partly think this is why I was suggested to review A Stranger in Olondria.
Sofia Samatar’s writing is very lyrical, beautiful, even, and many other reviewers have praised this, calling it ‘poetic’. It is no surprise to find that she is also a published poet, too, and from what I can make out, her poems are often long, narrative pieces.
So you might have noticed we have a new Unbeliever! The esteemed Eric Randolf, (serious foreign affairs correspondent) has been replaced with the honourable poet, scholar, and gent Alex Macdonald. Yet again we embark on the naïve journey of trying to convert a confessed fantasy-snubber to the wonderful ways of the weird. Part of that task is choosing a book, a book that we love and cherish, and offer it up to be dissected, prodded, and pulled apart. For our diversity issue, we chose A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar.
Jevick, son of a strict and overbearing spice merchant, idolises the high culture of Olondria. When he finally gets his chance to visit the fabled city to trade in his family’s spice, he is overwhelmed by the traditions, learning, and scale of the place.Most exciting are their words, printed in a dizzying array of books, which Jevick consumes with joy.
But a chance encounter with a fellow Spice Islander, a girl in search of a cure for a terminal illness, casts a shadow over him, spurring a journey that will change the world.
Our Unbeliever compares the sales figures of poetry and sff, showing that sff is truly a popular genre. I have no argument with that. It is commercially successful, with loyal fans who actually spend money on it, (although of course it still struggles, like publishing in general) because they want to own it and surround themselves with it. But The Unbelievers is not about sff being under-read. It’s rather about it being underappreciated as a literary genre. There is an inherent snobbery in the literary world – I experienced this first-hand whilst writing genre during my creative writing MA – and I have come to the conclusion that it is a prejudice that generally stems (like all prejudice) from ignorance. People that think sff is trashy, pure entertainment, and an inferior art form just haven’t read any decent sff. Yes, there is some complete and utter trash in genre, just like there is in all genres – literary fiction certainly included – but there is also wonderful, breathtaking, truly excellent writing to be found. Like all beautiful, special things, it is rare, but occasionally, you do come across such a book. For me, A Stranger in Olondria is the real deal.
Being a poet our Unbeliever is of course rather picky about poetry. I am not a poet. I read a bit of it, because I like how it sounds, and how it can make me feel, but do not claim to be able to critique it. So I am coming at this from the ‘fantasy’ angle. I love and read a hella lot of it, and there is something about A Stranger in Olondria that stands out to me as genuinely attempting something different and original in the genre. This is certainly a risk, something that perhaps cannot be sustained without imperfection for an entire novel, but when it worked, it made me sit up and just appreciate a particular moment in the imagery, characterisation or – dare I say it – the songs and poetry of the constructed world (if, like me, you skipped all the ballads in Lord of The Rings, then you won’t have a problem skimming these if they don't agree with you). I found myself pausing over sentences, so beautifully constructed that I had to read them again (not because they were tricky to understand, but for the sheer enjoyment of their rhythm and imagery). Wonderful things like, ‘Our two worlds scrape together like two halves of a broken bone.’ The sheer fact that Samatar has the courage and skill to try something – in my opinion – quite original for the fantasy genre – is exciting.The attention to detail in every scene is meticulous, (some might say this is too much, but I think this is a personal thing, and I loved this) but still fluid. I found this an easy book to read, but it draws you along with clarity and wonderful craftsmanship.
As far as unfamiliar names go, getting your head around non Euro-centric names shouldn’t be a problem if the characters and places are introduced in such a way that they are made clear in your mind. Personally I really didn’t struggle with this, but I can totally understand that it would be very irritating to have to keep going back to figure out who everyone was. I would argue, however, that Samatar’s descriptions and individually rich characters avoid this.
Apart from being somewhat in love with this book, I chose A Stranger in Olondria for this issue because the world Samatar has imagined is incredibly diverse. I’m pretty sure there are no white people at all in this book. That in itself – which is just another example of the deep problems with underrepresentation within sff – makes this book stand out from the crowd. The fact that fantasy as a genre often draws on the European Medieval period is used as an excuse to have all white characters, which is crazy, as there were certainly people of colour in medieval Europe.
On top of this, A Stranger in Olondria also deals with society’s attitude to disability and illness. Jevick’s brother has learning disabilities and is ridiculed and made to suffer by their merchant father. Jissavet, the girl who haunts Jevick, has a terminal disease, and is shunned by her community. This book has divided people. Some, like me, hold this book up as an example of forward thinking, freshness, poetic literary writing, and the sort of diverse world building we need to see more and more and more of within the genre. For others, the language is overly lush, irritating, and trying too hard. But at least the complaints are not that it is lazy, the same old same old, full of boring tropes and regurgitated narratives. That, I believe, is a success in itself. You know what I think? The genre would be a better place if it was full of books trying too hard, taking more risks that didn’t always pay off, and generally attempting fresh and new things. For me, A Stranger In Olondria does all of these things, and, ultimately, pulls it off.
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