Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (Olondria #1)

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It is dangerous to build. Once you have built something – something that takes all your passion and will – it becomes more precious to you than your own happiness. You don’t realize that, while you are building it. That you are creating a martyrdom – something, which, later, will make you suffer.

And with this, I am done with the 2020 r/Fantasy Bingo!

The Winged Histories is one of my all-time favourites, so I was incredibly curious how would the first book in the series (really, the two can be read in any order) compare. I’m all for literary fantasy with lovely prose, so that I would like it to at least some extent was pretty much a given, but I still far prefer its sequel.

Structurally, this is much more of a traditional novel than The Winged Histories. It follows one character, Jevick, as he travels from his island country to Olondria and becomes haunted by the ghost of a girl along the way who demands to write her a book. His efforts to get himself rid of the ghosts compared with some of the Olondrians viewing the ghosts as angels and therefore sacred gets him into quite a lot of trouble.

Jevick is never really a central protagonist, a driver of events in the traditional sense. He is much more the type who gets caught in the current of something much larger than himself. But that doesn’t mean he’s passive and his motivation is clear: initially to travel to Olondria, the contry he heard so much about, then the need to get rid of the ghost/angel haunting him overpowers all else. And even as a catalyst, he does have impact on Olondrian history.

Another large theme of the book are books themselves, and the power they have. Jevick’s love of reading, his ghost wanting a book written about her, the books forbidden and burned by Olondria’s new religion, various mentions of Olondrian classical literature, it’s very much a book about books.

Unfortunately, its biggest strength is also its biggest weakness. It’s so focused on prose that I found it hard to stay engaged. The narrative style made it feel distant and what worked in The Winged Histories, which is much more fragmented and experimental in structure, did not quite work here. It felt empty in a strange way, like it was missing something. I’m not sure what –  the main components are all there. But I struggled.

Still, if you’re looking for literary fantasy, it might be worth a read.

Enjoyment: 3/5
Execution: 4/5

Recommended to: fans of literary fantasy and books about books, prose lovers
Not recommended to: those looking for a fast-paced, engaging read

2 thoughts on “Review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar (Olondria #1)”

  1. I loved this book so much – her writing just knocked me over backward and I found myself thinking about Jevick and books, religion, storytelling, and the other themes of the novel for *weeks* afterward (and wrote about it here: https://marietoday.wordpress.com/2020/09/12/write-me-a-book-put-my-voice-inside-it-a-stranger-in-olondria-by-sofia-samatar/). I definitely understand why someone looking for a fast-paced book would tire of it around the middle, though.
    I have not yet read The Winged Histories, but I am looking forward to it!

    Like

    1. Hmm, I wasn’t at all expecting a fast-paced book, but even with literary or slice of life stuff I like to have something that pulls me in. Which was for whatever reason absent here (but not in Winged Histories).
      Glad you enjoyed it though!

      Liked by 1 person

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