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The Olondria Novels
by Sofia Samatar

Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted January 23, 2024
Edits and Addendum on February 7

A Stranger in Olondria / The Winged Histories

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A blurb on the back of the paperback, from Kelly Link, says in part: "She writes like the heir of Ursula K. Le Guin and Gene Wolfe." That may sound like hyperbole, considering this is Samatar's debut novel, but it is absolutely true. I say that as a huge fan of both Le Guin and Wolfe. The subtitle to the novel is: Being the Complete Memoirs of the Mystic, Jevick of Tyom. You may say, wait, how can it be complete if there is another book in the sequence? The second book, which I will get to next month, is set within the same milieu, but it is not a direct sequel to Jevick's tale. The story begins on the island of Tinamavet, south of Olondria, one of several known as the Tea Islands. The islands were known not just for tea, but also spices. Jevick's father is a pepper merchant. He would travel to Bain, the main port city of Olondria, once a year to sell his goods. One year he returned with a tutor for Jevick. The language of the islands was Kideti, but the tutor, Lunre, taught Jevick to read, write, and speak Olondrian. One would assume that was so Jevick would be familiar with the customs of Olondrian society for the time he would take over the business, but his father was upset Jevick was more interested in fiction and poetry, rather than business and accounting.

Jevick is writing his story, but he also recounts stories told by others he meets, as well as quoting from numerous books. His father dies suddenly, so Jevick is forced into the pepper business earlier than he had expected. On his first boat trip to Olondria he encounters a young woman, Jissavet, who appears to be dying of a wasting disease, kyitna, traveling north in hopes of a cure. He does see her later, but not in the way he had anticipated. He has an assistant who keeps the books, takes care of travel arrangements and lodging, and dealing with buyers at the markets. Jevick soaks in the strange city by walking the streets, visiting cafes and bars, and of course, bookstores. Then Jissavet reappears, but as an apparition, a ghost. In the Tea Islands it was not unknown to see ghosts, but it was assumed they were lost due to their body not being cremated. Jevick thinks if he can find and burn her body she will cease to haunt him. He was unaware that in Olondria ghosts were thought of as angels, but not of the benevolent variety. There was a sharp divide between those who sought out contact with angels, and those who condemned such activity as demonic. When the authorities become aware he is seeing and communicating with Jissavet, he is arrested and taken to Velvalinhu on the Blessed Isle, to the Tower of Myrrh, where he is interrogated by Ivrom, the Second Priest of the Stone, and also by his daughter, Tialon. Then he is sent to the Gray Houses.

Security at the Gray Houses was lax, perhaps as a means for those incarcerated to further incriminate themselves. Tialon visits him frequently, but there is also a rival priest, Aurum, follower of the Goddess Avalei, one who wants to cultivate Jevick's ability to see angels. He declares Jevick to be an avneanyi, one who communes with angels. It doesn't matter that Jevick says he only sees Jissavet, that she is the only ghost he ever hopes to see. He has no interest in trying to conjure others. Aurum, along with his nephew Miros, help Jevick escape the Gray Houses, escape the Blessed Isle by boat, traveling to Fayaleith, east of Bain. There they conduct a Night Market, inviting people to petition Jevick for answers about the afterlife, or for information about the fate of someone missing, or objects that are missing. Jevick cannot help them, mainly because Jissavet, who continually appears to him, doesn't know the answers to their queries either. She is not as interested in him finding her body and freeing her spirit. Instead, she wants him to write her vallon, a poem about her life. She thinks that will allow her to be immortal. Beautifully lyrical, not just of the travel through strange landscapes, strange cultures, but also of the spirit within. Jevick loved reading, loved the insights he found in poems and histories, and he wanted to be a writer himself. Which he does, not only of his story, but that of Jissavet too. At first, her spirit was inarticulate, but later she was able to recount her story, of her parents and her childhood, which culminated in them being ostracized from their village due to her illness. It is possible Jevick was also her editor through her recitation, since it is as lyrical as everything else.

Samatar is of mixed heritage; her father was a Somali Muslim, her mother is a Mennonite of Swiss-German extraction. She was born in Indiana, but the first draft of the novel was written while she was teaching high school English in Sudan. She has said there were many influences, including Egypt, particularly Alexandria, as well as other places in Africa. Colonialism and the clash of cultures is a main theme. In the afterword, she says it took two years to write, another decade to revise. All of that effort was worth it. In addition to being a Nebula finalist, A Stranger in Olondria won World Fantasy, British Fantasy, and the Crawford Award, the latter presented by the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts. On the strength of the book, and I assume earlier work, she won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2014, an award more recently renamed the Astounding. I had read so many positive things about the book, and Samatar in general, it is reassuring that the accolades were warranted. It is among the best books I have ever read. Highly recommended..

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Posted February 7, 2024
The only award consideration for The Winged Histories was as finalist for a Locus. It deserved more recognition. As I said above, it is not a direct sequel to A Stranger in Olondria, but it is connected, with scenes set before, during, and after Jevick's tale. Jevick does not appear, but the Night Market incident is mentioned, and several characters from the first book do appear; the priest Ivrom, his daughter Tialon, as well as Lunre, Jevick's tutor, but earlier in his life when he was an associate of Ivrom, when he also had an unrequited love for Tialon. The book is in four parts, each focused on a different woman, Tialon in the second part. First is the Lady Tavis. She preferred Tav, but was also called Taviye on occasion, the suffix meaning "beloved child." She lives in Kestenya, a former independent country now within the Empire of Olondria. She is of mixed heritage, Kestenyi and Nain, and some of the Nain branch of the family may also have ties to the Lath. There is a map in both books (see below) that shows several places I don't recall from the text, but others are not on the map, such as Nain or Lath. It is possible they were not countries or regions, maybe just ethnic groups. Through a concatenation of marriages, Tav is the niece of the current Telkan, sometimes also called king, but maybe that should be emperor. The line of succession is not from father to son, but to a nephew. Tav's cousin Asdasya (Dasya), is next in line to be Telkan.

I'll admit to being confused several times throughout, but do not think that means I didn't love the book. Tav is telling her story, but it is a combination of what she is doing, or plans to do, with reminiscences of her earlier life. Multiple times I was a paragraph or more into a scene before I realized the setting or time frame had switched. Similar to how the Telkan succession went to a nephew, Tav's Aunt Mardith had the obligation of arranging marriages for her nieces. Tav objected to that, and she went against custom by running away from home and joining a military academy. That was normally a male domain, but Tav's ambition harkened back to legends of swordwomen, although I can't recall if they were from Nain or Lath stories. As Jevick did in his tale, there are frequent quotes from books, poems, and songs. Tav fights in the war against the Brogyar to the north, is wounded, then recuperates at the family home of Ashenlo (which is on the map). She reunites with her sister, Siski, who will relate her story in the fourth section. Their father was a gambler and drunkard, but their mother kept the estate running, even if that sometimes meant selling off parts of the property. She at least kept it in the family by selling to another uncle. Their mother, and their Aunt Mardith, had always instilled in them an expectation of a grand destiny, most especially through their connection to the royal family. Yet Tav longed for the lost independence of Kestenya, which she hoped to restore with the help of Dasya.

Tialon tells her story in the second part, but again it is a combination of 'current' and past events, and at times it was in first-person, alternating with third-person, or else someone else is telling her story, occasionally quoting Tialon. Tav and Dasya's revolution was only partially successful. Their main purpose was to restore the reverence for the Goddess Avalei, destroy the Priesthood of the Stone, and gain independence for Kestenya. All of those were accomplished, but for how long? Tialon is being kept prisoner while chaos swirls outside the castle. One would think it would have made more sense for Dasya to bide his time until he became Telkan, but there is another aspect to his story which propelled his quick actions, something that Siski knew but Tav did not. Unless I missed it, I think Tav never found out. The third part of the book is told from the perspective of Seren, a woman of the Lath people whom Tav encountered during the war. They became lovers, but Seren was not able to convince Tav to stay with her.

Siski's story also combines past experiences with those of her after the revolution. Tav and Dasya had returned to Kestenya, Dasya very ill, Tav not knowing what or why or how to help him. Siski does know, so she tells Tav to go back to her Lath lover, she would tend to Dasya. For most of the book I assumed the cover image, of Tav riding a giant bird, an ilok, was what the title referenced. Iloks had been used in year's past, but had previously been abandoned as military mounts. Several were still kept in the Telkan's castle, and Tav found them and used one to escape the revolution's aftermath, carrying Dasya with her. I am not going to say what was 'wrong' with Dasya, only that it throws the story even further in the fantasy direction. Siski had learned his secret many years before, and had avoided him, even though everyone had assumed the restrictions against cousins marrying would be ignored for them. In times past they both hoped that would be the case. She finds that Dasya had brought a book from the Telkan's library, and if Samatar had given this the same title, The Dreved Histories, and if Dreved was something from our own legends, I wouldn't need to explain it. What I will say is that Dasya survives his 'affliction,' but the book ends there.

I have to wonder if Samatar will ever return to this world, because there are more parts to the Olondrian Empire than we have seen in these two books. The first began in the Tea Islands, but was mainly in Bain and the Blessed Isle, directly north of Bain, then Fayaleith, east of Bain. The second book is mostly in Kestenya, further east, as well as north and northeast of that region. But what about to the west, Nissia and other regions, and how much beyond the map also belongs to Olondria? Even if she doesn't write more about this world I will read more of her work, with story collections lined up for the next two months. Some of the stories may be related to Olondria. It is possible that the confusion I experienced may have been the same for other readers, lowering the rating and recognition for Histories. It is one of the ways these books are similar to Gene Wolfe. I have had to re-read many of his books to catch things missed, or misunderstood, the first, or second time. I will be reading these again one of these days, and suggest you discover their wonders for yourself.



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Sofia Samatar

Stranger - 4/12/2013
Histories - 2/15/2016

Stranger won:
World Fantasy
British Fantasy
Finalist for:

Both were Locus finalists

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