A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

This is the fantasy novel that we will be discussing at tomorrow night’s Third Tuesday Book Club Meeting (on March 17, 2015). This is a novel of very high fantasy, in a world of wonder, of many gods, of divided loyalties, and of the power of the written word. I enjoyed reading this, but there is no way that it can ever be made into a movie (which may be a good thing).

Jevick is the son of the pepper plantation owner in Tyom on the isolated island of Tinimavet in the Tea Islands; as such, he lives a comfortable life (his father is one of the richest men), but his father is a hard man, disgusted that Jervick’s older brother cannot learn anything. Once a year Jevick’s father takes the year’s crop of pepper and takes ship to the city of Bain in far-away Olondria; the year Jevick is eleven, his father brings back an Olondrian tutor for his second son. Over the next five years Jevick learns to speak fluent Olondrian; he is also introduced to the concept of vallon, of written books (of which he knew nothing before; his father keeps accounts by burning numbers and symbols into wooden tablets) and inhales all of his tutor’s books of Olondrian poetry, which tell of the fabled wonders of Olondria.

When Jevick’s father dies some five years later, Jevick falls heir to the family business, and in due time he is the one who is to take the pepper crop to sell. This will let him achieve his fondest desire, which is to get out of Tyom and see the city of Bain for himself. On the ship he briefly meets a girl who is his age, who is ill with kyitna, a fatal inherited wasting disease which turns the sufferer’s hair a very distinctive bright shade of red, and which generally turns the sufferer into a pariah. Her name is Jissavet of Kiem, from an even more isolated island than Jevick’s own in the Tea Islands, and she is fascinated by the vallon, the book that Jevick reads from, and of its power. Jevick arrives in the city of Bain, which has everything that his heart has ever desired; but his mind is well nigh overthrown by his possession by a so-called angel, a spirit from the other world who demands a quest of him.

This is a world where the written word is held in awe, and where elemental spirits are considered closer to one than one’s family, a world of many gods and of sects suppressed in the name of governmental order. Words can change a life, can start or destroy love, and can make a person see what another person has seen. As a person who loves books, and who also loves what books represent, I loved reading this novel, but it was not an easy read; there were so many ways in which I could not feel that I was understanding what Jevick, a product of his world and his education, was thinking or feeling or going through. But I think we will have a good discussion of the book at our Third Tuesday Book Club meeting.

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