I read A Stranger in Olondria last year and observed how different it felt to read it compared to other books I enjoy. Typically, books that become my favorites are those that are impossible to put down; quick, intense reads. A Stranger in Olondria is so dense with description and mythology that I was compelled to read it slowly, but found that it was absolutely worth taking the time so that the story can unfold slowly in layers and layers of detail.
This year I read Sofia Samatar’s second novel, The Winged Histories, and I cannot wait to read it again. In fact I did re-read the first few chapters almost immediately after finishing the book, just so I could linger in that world again. I’m trying to read through the stack of new-to-me novels I picked up from a used book sale, but what I’d really like to do is start from the beginning of A Stranger in Olondria and go through it all again.
Why do I love these books?
- They are rich with sensory detail. Every scene is crowded with information about how things look, feel, sound, and smell.
Young Adult Historical Vault recently revisited a book I loved as a child, Quest for a Maid, which depicts medieval Scotland in gloriously vivid detail: the main character comes from an enormous merchant household that works hard and plays hard, and her narrative is packed with candies, ribbons, colorful markets, winter sports, instructions for making dresses and keeping house, and magic. I still think of this book many years later in the oddest of places, such as when I encounter marzipan, walk into a pop-up market, or sew.
I have a feeling Sofia Samatar’s novels will be like this for me too, with its vivid peppercorn trees, the riot of noise and stimulus of the markets, the elaborate written rituals of royalty. Now that I work in a library, I look at old volumes with ornate covers and remember the first time Jevick in Stranger sees a book. When I sit down to write, despite my preference for typing I still think of the handwritten journals and letters, the writing implements, the rituals of writing space both physical and mental employed by the characters who can write.
- The books take place in a culturally and historically rich world. I went to all the Middle Earth movies, no matter how terrible. I followed Harry Potter up through the seventh book; I’m even going to Harry Potter Quizzo this weekend. I’ve played every game in the Mass Effect and Dragon Age universes, and in between watching Marvel Comics television and film releases I try to catch up on the original characters and their plotlines. What all of these cultural artifacts have in common is that they take place in worlds that have history, mythology, culture with layers of conflict and interrelationships, sometimes geeky ornamentation such as invented languages or social rules. These are cherished by fans in part because you can dwell in their worlds by learning their rules, languages, lore.
A Stranger in Olondria provides that the sweeping history, the clash of cultures, the languages and lore in one novel. That is nothing short of remarkable. The Winged Histories expands on that world in a very satisfying way. In both novels, the reader becomes acquainted with the legends and history of Olondria because the characters are learning it (as with Stranger‘s Jevick, who is an immigrant) or loving and finding comfort in its tales (as is frequently the case in Histories). This is a primary factor in my wish to re-read: no doubt there are nuances and details to the lore I missed the first time.
- This imagined world is not just another version of the one you already know. By way of explanation, another story: I’ve watched maybe two episodes of Game of Thrones. The first episode I saw was the first episode of Season 2, where the narrative has to check in with each of the seven kingdoms. Although I was not familiar with the plot or characters, it wasn’t hard to follow: the tyrant king, here; the rebel king, there; the sorceress, over here. It is a story built on tropes which felt very familiar to me, which is one reason why I didn’t feel the need to continue. From what I hear, the show introduces novelty and surprise by crossing lines we don’t expect it to cross moreso than by introducing fresh perspectives on these old tropes.
Olondria is not Medieval England Redux. The center of its empire is warm and lush, where spices and pomegranates grow, but the empire reaches into tropical islands, deserted plains, and snowy highlands. Olondria has tenuously united a diverse array of peoples with a variety of cultures who have a variety of appearances beyond the usual formula of “white people north, brown people south.” The Olondrian Empire doesn’t have a one-to-one parallel with real history: it draws a little from the Roman Empire, a little from the British Empire, most likely from empires whose history is less well known to me. Olondria is pre-industrial but not archaic; its social structures are sophisticated and complex. Its fashionable aristocracy would be recognizable in any time or place, but the trends they pick up and drop feel new and surprising.
- The imagined world engages oppression meaningfully, not reflexively. For one example: The Winged Histories explores historical fantasy sexism in a nuanced, meaningful way. It’s not all rape and slavery, as the medieval fantasies of certain male writers tend to be. Nor does it depend on exceptionalism, with just one female rulebreaker to throw the plight of women into contrast. The four female narrators each experience oppression differently based on their respective cultural and family backgrounds. When they rebel, they feel a little lonely, but not completely alone because they can refer to historical precedents and a few living examples: an ambitious queen, a swordmaiden, a sister.
Likewise, both novels depict the colonial history of the Olondrian Empire as complex. The Empire itself is far from uniform and united; like any real-life empire, it is only tenuously held together by a preferred religion and an exhausted military. The cultures who are assimilated into the Empire have their own complicated history of triumphs and failures. The result is a thoughtful reflection on the exchange of power.
- Both books passionately love books. For the love of print, buy a hard copy of each. I did not, even though I knew better for The Winged Histories, but I had already started reading the free sample on my Kindle and I couldn’t wait to continue. But this is a book that benefits from being held in the hands: characters take great risks for books, plunging their hands into fires to rescue burning pages, or carrying precious volumes in their shirts even onto the battlefield. Besides, it would have been helpful to flip between the swordmaiden’s narrative and the map of Olondria to track her travels. I didn’t even know there was a glossary in the back of The Winged Histories; I just marched doggedly through, inferring words like teiva and milim from context. Which was fine, but you don’t have to.
- They are magical. The magical and supernatural elements build slowly. Everyone in Olondia has heard of magic, of course; many of them practice living religions and are prepared to accept miracles, spirit guides, and visions, even if those events are rare. And everyone knows the legends, of course. But not everyone experiences magic, and when it happens to certain characters, they aren’t always sure how to explain what’s happening, or why it’s happening to them. Magic enters the story through a process of discovery, making it all the more wonderful and miraculous for the reader.
I have definitely talked myself into re-reading; I may even come up with an entirely different set of Things I Love.