Jevick is from Tyom, a small village in the Tea Islands. He has lived here all his childhood, learning the delicate art of pepper-growing from his father, hardly understanding his own isolation, until one day his father brings back something new from the mainland: an Olondrian tutor named Lunre. Lunre teaches Jevick to read, to love the printed word, to see it as immortality; and he teaches him to long for the country the books come from, as well. Upon his father’s death, Jevick leaves for Olondria and the fabled city of Bain, believing that now, his real life can begin.
Despite his brief encounter with a red-headed island girl dying from kyitna, an inherited wasting disease, Jevick dives into his new life in Bain, noticing every lush detail.
Housed on the site of ancient horse and cattle auctions, the vast covered markets, with their arched leather roofs made to keep out the rain, form a jumbled labyrinth that stretches almost to the harbor. Here in the shadows the lavish, open sacks display their contents: the dark cumin redolent of mountains, the dried, crushed red pepper colored richly as iron ore, and turmeric, “the element of weddings.”… There are herbs, fresh and dried — mint, marjoram, and basil; there are dark cones and mud-like blocks of incense; there are odors in the air that seem to speak to one another, as though the market were filled with violent ghosts.
Jevick pays less and less attention to his pepper trade and more and more to wandering in Bain, until one feast day, walking in the streets, he is caught up in the frenzied cult-worship of the ancient goddess Avalei. In the aftermath, his head aching, in desperate need of a shower, he has a deeply frightening experience he can’t explain. Then another. And another. And finally he comes to a conclusion he can neither believe nor deny: he is being haunted by the red-headed girl he met on the boat. And the ghost (referred to in Olondria as an angel) wants him to write a book.
You know how these things sometimes happen — I’ve read three books in a row now that deal with books and immortality. A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar, is certainly the most complex of them. If the written word promises eternal life, as Jevick has been taught to believe, then what happens when he is haunted by the ghost of an illiterate girl? What are we to make of the many examples of oral culture in the book — stories within the story — epics, fairy tales, ballads, songs, myths? What happens if libraries are destroyed? Is there such a thing as the tyranny of the written word? What arises when a previously oral culture gains an alphabet and someone writes it down? What about barriers of language, culture, class? What happens to memory and tradition in a culture without books?
Stylistically, A Stranger in Olondria is different than most contemporary novels you’ll read. A lot happens in this book, but it feels slow and measured. There are long passages of description and not a lot of dialogue, and while it’s a ghost story, it’s also a story about power dynamics and belief systems. It’s a book that takes more of its storytelling tradition from Africa and the Middle East than from northern Europe — and that, too, is unusual, for the landscape of most fantasy novels.
I found myself thinking about this book long after I’d finished it. I was still digesting it: thinking about the different religions in it, the structures that had decreed that the “cult of angels” (i.e. being haunted by a ghost”) was mental illness and was outlawed. It’s a book that keeps on at you. It’s highly recommended. Here, if you like, is a short story of Samatar’s that I also enjoyed: “Selkie Stories Are for Losers.” Try it and see what you think, and let me know.