Saturday, April 8, 2023

A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar
Completed 4/8/2023, Reviewed 4/8/2023
2 stars

I’m a sucker for good prose, but sometimes it can be overbearing, obfuscating the plot and its progression.  This book’s prose is the latter.  There was so much description of people and places that I regularly lost the point of the action or dialogue.  It’s beautiful but extremely distracting.  At times I thought the thin plot was just an excuse to write a poetic travelogue.  This book won the 2014 World Fantasy and British Fantasy Awards and was nominated for several others.  I have read three of the five other nominees for the WFA and would given this award to any one of them over this bloated book. 

Jevick is the son of a pepper grower and merchant.  His father brings in a tutor to teach his son the language and customes of Olondria, where he goes to sell his pepper.  Jevick becomes enamored with Olondria.  Particularly, it reveres books and language, unlike the island where he lives.  When the father dies, Jevick leaves the family farm to explore Olondria.  While there, he experiences an apparition of a sickly girl who was on the boat with him.  He’s terrified of this and tells no one.  The haunting eats at him and eventually he tells the owner of the inn where he is staying, who turns him in to the head of one of the religious sects of the land, one where belief in ghosts, or angels, is considered a mental health issue.  However, word gets out of Jevick as a seer and soon he is pursued by another sect, one that reveres those who can see angels.  The result is an exploration of the sects’ rituals and eventually a travelogue as Jevick tries to rid himself of the angel and return home.

I never completely connected with Jevick, only in the lightest of terms.  He’s a moody boy and naïve adult.  I was actually more interested in his older brother, who appears to have been on the spectrum, which resulted in their father passing over him as the inheritor of the family business.  I also found the tutor to be quite interesting and would have liked more exposure to him.  I didn’t really care for many of the other characters.  They all felt one dimensional, being there solely for Jevick to react to.  

The plot left a lot to be to be desired.  It felt flimsy with no real purpose other than to provide Samatar with something to expound upon.  I felt like every aspect of every person, place, and thing, was there solely for the purpose of writing prose to describe it.  There are multiple stories within the story, which are just more opportunities to write overbearing prose.  They do give some background to the characters and color to the places, but eventually, they become tedious.  Even the big background story about the angel was tough to take even though it is the crux of the motivation for the angel.

I give this book two stars out of five.  It was way too bloated for me.  I knew I was in trouble when in the early pages of the book, the paragraphs were more than a page long.  That’s often a warning signal that the writing may be hard to take.  It’s great for world building, but not for general enjoyment.  

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