Contemporary readership apparently tired of traditional fantasy, a grittier, more visceral side of the genre has appeared on shelves and online shops in an ever-growing volume the past decade. Few and far between are the titles wherein language is lush and evocative, honor and ambition are still virtues, or where the main character is sent on a numinous quest—no aegis to violence, quest for power, or burning hate fueling his days. High fantasy has been replaced by grimdark. Does that make Sofia Samatar’s wonderful 2014 A Stranger in Olondria retro?
It’s inevitable that when the words ‘high fantasy’ are put on the table, images of knights in shining armor, wizards in pointy hats, castles and banners, princes and princesses come dancing to mind. A Stranger in Olondria is none of that. Well, none of that, precisely. There is a young man on a quest, but he’s not a product of the Arthurian mold. There is a fantasy land, but it’s not craggy peaks and and green meadows, rather, islands and fruit, deserts and spice. There is magic, but it’s of the sublime kind—sages instead of mages, haunted dreams and poetry instead of spells and potions.
We meet Jevick, said young man, before he even has an inkling of a quest. Second son to the village nobleman, his father’s is a tough law to follow. But the man does make allowances for his son. Returning from his annual trip to Olondria selling the family’s pepper stock, he brings with him a tutor, an enigmatic old man calling himself Lunre. Jevick taught the ways of reading and writing, he finds the skills pressed quickly into action when a surprise event forces him to the Olondrian mainland to participate in the family business. Meeting a convalescent young woman on the journey named Jissavet, Jevick doesn’t realize until too late precisely the effect she will have him. The sights and sounds of Olondria a delight to his foreign senses, particularly the bookstores, he spends his frist days and weeks reveling in the new land. But one celebratory evening changes everything. His nights becoming haunted by the young woman he met on the ship, things get more complicated when he learns that such dreaming is illicit according to the ruling power. And it isn’t long before Jevick is taken against his will, imprisoned at a sanitorium overseen by a man seemingly he may be malign. It’s in captivity that greater secrets about Jevick’s affliction develop, and his true purpose discovered.
If it isn’t obvious, A Stranger in Olondria is one of those novels where the road beneath the feet only reveals itself after the reader has taken the step—what the foot lands so rich and engaging as to compel the next step. The novel a journey of discovery, there are elements of Robert Silverberg's Lord Valentine's Castle as much as Ursula Le Guin's The Tombs of Atuan. A coming of age via a very personal quest, Samatar unleashes all her skill as a storyteller in relating Jevick’s tale.
But the novel’s heart is nicely summed up by Amel El-Mohtar: it is about the human “vulnerability to language and literature, and the simultaneous experience of power and surrender inherent in the acts of writing and reading.” Samatar’s experience as a poet directly, and personal reflection indirectly, influencing the narrative, Jevick’s journey is described in rich, redolent language, all the while the sub-text examines the meaning of the written word to himself and others. While Samatar’s occasional digressions (I’m thinking specifically of the story-within-a-story about two-thirds through) may not always help the narrative retain its cohesiveness, there’s no doubt the text was reviewed with a fine tooth comb - evocation of setting, Jevick’s mindset, and how the two play into the meaning of literature foremost in mind.
If there are any issues with Stranger, one would perhaps be the over-dependence on herbs and spice in evoking a sensual response from the reader. Though more than likely this will come down to reader preference, there remain innumerable references. Another would be the initial under-development of Jevick’s relationship with Jissavet. Later sections of the narrative out of proportion to Jevick’s decisions and actions earlier (i.e. one seems to barely warrant the other given the paucity of interaction), his path through life is enthralling for the places he goes and people he meets as a result, but its impetus lacks full steam as presented.
In the end, A Stranger in Olondria is a novel that very personally and powerfully examines the value of reading and writing, as well as their effect on personal legacy and ambition. Both paean and examination of the written word, Samatar uses the high fantasy mold to tell the individual story of one young man raised in the country discovering himself in a strange new land. Disengaged from the strong Arthurian roots most high, mythopoeic fantasy is based on, Samatar spins her quest in a unique direction through poetry and poetic language.