“The word for 'book' in all the known languages of the earth is vallon, 'chamber of words'...”
I suspect that once in a while every reviewer comes across a book for which they will have no idea what to write. A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar is one of those books. On the one hand, it is an affecting book that speaks of the power of literacy, of reading, and of stories. On the other, it is a distancing and wholly unengaging story.
A Stranger in Olondria chronicles the life of Jevick of Tyom, from his adventures as a small boy growing up in the Tea Islands to his troubled encounter with a ghost. The second son of a wealthy merchant, Jevick is tutored in the art of reading and writing and becomes increasingly fascinated with stories about far away Olondria, a wealthy land where books are common and literacy is not as rare as it is on the Tea Isles.
When his father dies, Jevick eagerly takes his place on a trip to Olondria. As much as Jevick has read and loved stories of the rich and distant land, he is not prepared for the real Olondria; for the sounds, the smells, the tastes and the people he finds there. Above all, he is not prepared for the political reality of Olondria. And just when he is about to return home, Jevick finds himself haunted by the ghost of an illiterate girl and is unable to return. Worse, Jevick becomes ensnared in politics and religious conflict when he is thought to be a saint by one of Olondria’s cults and is stranded in this distance land.
A Stranger in Olondria is a very interesting concoction of a ghost story and a travelogue, depicting the trials and tribulations of a young man. It also is a portrait of a strange, fantastical country, a backdrop against which there are discussions about the power of stories, and examinations of religious and philosophical constructs. The book also examines oral and written traditions, and how one’s sense of identity and worth can be informed by either. It is fascinating how the novel shows the differences to approaching reading and writing within Olondria itself: Some forbid it; some embrace it and even use it for medicinal purposes. There is literal power in books and in literacy.
This concept is all the more intriguing and applicable (and very meta), since what effectively will make or break one’s experience when reading A Stranger in Olondria is its writing. Olondria’s prose is poetic, detailed and richly depictive. It is exactly the type of writing that I personally find most difficult to engage with because I often feel that the careful construction of the writing has trumped all else. The storytelling literally tells a lot and describes everything. On a positive note, this is good since it creates a great sense of place. But it doesn’t really serve the story very well, as the richness of description didn’t quite transfer into a richness of character development. Things happen to Jevick, and he describes them in-depth—yet I never got a real sense of who he was. This stranger in Olondria remains a complete stranger to me.
In a sense, though, perhaps the writing here is the story. And this brings me back to the beginning of my review, and my admission that there was a huge disconnect between the book and I. Was this disengagement due to the book being flawed or simply due to the book not being for me? I suspect that in the hands of the right reader—one who truly appreciates this type of poetic writing—A Stranger in Olondria will be a treasured read.
Alas, I am not one of those readers.
In Book Smugglerish, a distanced 5 out of 10.