My review of A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar: A fantasy novel about stories with poetic language about love in it’s many different forms.
My review of A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar
A literary fantasy novel with poetic language, that plays with nested narratives. The story circles around themes of love in many different forms and has fully fledged human characters.
Title: A Stranger in Olondria
Author: Sofia Samatar
Genre: Second world fantasy, travel novel
I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose light and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.
This was my pick for our book club because it kept showing up on lists and because people kept recommending it. I have read Samatar’s short story work before and have loved it, so I was inclined to try it and used the book club as an excuse to get to it.
I have read this novel as a combination of audiobook (which is excellent) and as an ebook, which fit the themes of oral stories and written stories perfectly. I listened to it because I knew it would be slow, which is something I have little patience for when reading but can handle when it is read to me.
The descriptions are wonderful, but they would have bugged me down if I had read it rather than listened to it. The book has a lot of narratives told within the narrative – listing to the book also really helped keeping my attention during those – if I had read it normally I would have been tempted to skim those – which would have been a great detriment to the story. The smaller narratives often give meaning to what is going on in the main story and influence Jevick.
A Stranger in Olondria is a dense book with language the edges on the flowery – with a lots of descriptions. It is beautiful and poetic but is also slow. This is not a book to read for the main plot, but rather for the themes and the little stories within the story, for the characters and their intertwined lives.
To a great extend this reads as a literary travel novel (at least the first third does) and in many ways it is a literary novel more than it is a fantasy novel – you can read this as a non-fantastical narrative, if you want to – I don’t think you should but you could. In our book club we had a long discussion about whether the supernatural elements were actually supernatural or a mental disorder that Jevick had. We came out on the side that the supernatural elements happened, but there is a valid reading of them not to be.
This is very much a story about stories and about love. Not happy love stories, but very sad ones. About twisted relationships and about parent child relationships. It is a story about many kinds of love and many kinds of relationships: Lovers, parents and child, siblings, teacher and student, priest and believer, forbidden love, impossible love, devotion, love that grows over time and complicated love. The stories told within the narrative and though the narrative rarely end happily for anyone.
It is also a story about religion and the way religion uses narratives, tradition and power. It also deals with themes of the treatment of people with mental issues, as a good chunk of the narrative is set in a mental institution.
The characters are not always easy to like, but they are interesting and fully fleshed human beings. Jevick is not a character with a lot of agency, but he is a fully fleshed out one none the less.
I think I will recommend it, IF you are in the mood for a heavy book, but do not read this if you just want something fun and light, this is not that.
The stats: A Stranger in Olondria
Published: 2013 by Small Beer Press
Read: April 04 to 18, 2016
Format: ebook & audiobook
Author: Female, poc, USA
The protagonist: Jevick, male, poc, outsider, son of a merchant, scholar
This review was originally posted: May 19, 2016. Updated June 25, 2023