Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

Stranger in OlondriaAuthor: Sofia Samatar

Publisher: Small Beer Press

Publication Date: 30 April 2013

Length: Novel (317 pages)

Format I read: Audiobook from Kindle

This beautiful novel is centred around a coming of age story – that of Jevick, son of a rich spice grower on the remote islands of Tyom. Taught to read and write by a foreign tutor from the distant country of Olondria, Jevick becomes enraptured by books and by language, by the possibilities held in thoughts made corporeal, by the land and histories of Olondria that he reads about. The death of his father gives Jevick the opportunity to travel to Olondria to sell his pepper crop but when there he becomes haunted by ghost of a girl from his homeland that he met whilst travelling. This haunting is considered at once sacred and profane in the two opposing religions of Olondria and Jevick becomes an unwitting pawn in political and religious battles between the two sides.

The concepts of language, writing, and stories are at the core of this book. It’s about how language and stories shape us and how they affect the world around us. Jevick learns to love stories but he learns it through another country’s language. His adoration of Olondria sets him apart from his home land, makes him question his own beliefs. But it’s when he’s seen Olondria and lived its stories that he learns to better appreciate and understand his own language and culture and begins his attempts to translate them into a written form.

It’s also about how we use words and stories to enforce, persuade, negate, and celebrate different ways of thinking. The priests of the various religions consistently tell Jevick stories to justify their actions, the tales of the islanders and the Olondrians shape how they react to different occurrences. And, we’re not just hearing Jevick’s story but all of those that interweave with it; we learn the lives of the people he meets, the poems, the mythology of the two countries, their histories, and their religions.

It’s so densely written and packed with tales that you forget what it is you’re reading – I was two seconds from fact-checking wikipedia at a couple of points before remembering that the entire world was fictional. It wasn’t easy going sometimes, at points I was waiting for some plot point to happen and then a character would state the terrible lines: “do you know the story of…”. Noooooooooooooo. But actually that all played into the creation of this thoroughly realistic world. I know this history of Olondria, the religions of the island of Tyom, the life of Jissavet. I know them like I know my own name.

Rating: A qualified 4 out of 5 stars
I feel like I should state that I almost gave up on this book a couple of times but that failure was totally on me. This isn’t a book where you can just wizz through and enjoy the plot. It needs to be savoured and appreciated for its beautiful and complex self and once I got in the zone I was good.

Note: Pretty sure this was a bad pick for audiobook because the book is so descriptive and based around the cleverness of language, especially that of writing in books, that it felt like the wrong format.


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