One of the (many) great things about Small Beer Press is that they can be relied upon to discover great new writers that mainstream publishers might be reluctant to take a risk on. Karen Lord was one such discovery. This year’s gem looks like being Sofia Samatar.
Not that Samatar is totally new to the community. Her poetry and non-fiction have been getting published online for a couple of years, and she has a bunch of short fiction out as well now, but A Stranger in Olondria is her first novel and it has already been receiving rave reviews. Gary Wolfe said of it, “it’s the most impressive and intelligent first novel I expect to see this year, or perhaps for a while longer”, which is very high praise indeed. Personally I’m having difficulty ranking it against the Jack Wolf novel, which is very good in other ways, but I really liked Samatar’s book too.
The hero of the story, Jevick, is the son of a successful spice merchant. He lives in a small, island community where most people can’t read and the local language isn’t written at all. Because he is destined to inherit the business, Jevick is given a tutor from the country of Olondria, where his father’s pepper crop is sold. This gives the young man of love of literature. When his father dies, Jevick heads off on his first trading mission to Olondria, looking forward to visiting civilisation at last.
On the sea voyage, Jevick encounters Jissavet, a young island girl who is suffering from an apparently incurable disease. Her parents are taking her to a holy shrine in Olondria in hope of a miracle cure, but no one else thinks this will work. Shortly thereafter, having partaken in a somewhat riotous religious festival called the Feast of Birds, Jevick becomes haunted by Jissavet’s ghost, who will not let him rest until she has had a proper island funeral.
Unfortunately for Jevick, Olondria is in the grip of a ferocious religious war. On one side are the King and the Priest of the Stone, who are stern puritans. On the other are the King’s son and the High Priest of Avalei, a love goddess whose worship is seriously Dionysian. In addition to the somewhat Moorcockian Law v Chaos dispute, the Priest of the Stone and his followers are very much the civilised city folk, whereas worship of Avalei is popular amongst the untutored country people.
The problem for Jevick is that it is a matter of faith for followers of the Stone that ghosts do not exist, whereas communing with the departed is a central part of Avalei worship. As someone who is actually in contact with a real ghost, Jevick quickly becomes an important pawn in the conflict.
So much for the plot. The delights of this book, however, come from the exquisite language (Samatar is a poet, after all) and from the fresh and original nature of the world in which it is set. As is common with fantasy novels, we don’t really see the whole world. Jevick interacts primarily with the Priest of the Stone and his daughter, and with the High Priest of Avalei and his nephew. However, Samatar provides sufficient interaction with ordinary people to convince us that there is a world out there, even though we see far fewer members of the ruling classes that we might expect to exist.
Interestingly, the entire cast appears to be non-white. The cover makes it very clear that Jevick is brown-skinned, as one might expect from someone from a place where hot spices are grown. The first Olondrian we meet, Jevick’s tutor, Lunre, is described as a “yellow man” by the island children. Had he been what we think of as “white”, I assume that they would have described him as “pink”. I note also that the signature side-effect of the incurable disease with which Jissavet is afflicted is to turn the victim’s hair red. Thus, in the world of the book, red-haired people are seen as evil. I found this mildly disconcerting, and therefore congratulate Samatar on a neat world-building trick.
While the narrative is driven by Jevick’s personal story, the philosophical core of the book is the religious conflict that is wracking Olondria. Admirably, Samatar makes it clear that both sides have value, and both are abhorrent in their own way. While the Priest of the Stone holds the country in an iron grip, and is willing to countenance any atrocity to wipe out his opponents, it is clear that victory for the followers of Avalei will be equally disastrous in its own way. Somewhere, Michael Moorock is grinning happily because, young people, we did the whole deconstruction of the Good v Evil structure of epic fantasy decades ago. It is nice to see it getting done again, and in such a very different way.
I have a small niggle with the book’s structure in that, when Jevick finally gets to make his peace with Jissavet and hear her life story, the book gets side-tracked somewhat. It is a very long section, told in a fairly disjointed manner. Had I been editing the book, I might have asked if some of Jissavet’s story could not have been revealed earlier so as to break that up. Then again, Gary sees nothing wrong with the book, and who am I to argue?
In summary, this is a very fine book, and one of the best fantasy novels of the year. Obviously it has to measure up against novels from Neil Gaiman and Guy Gavriel Kay, but it is a first novel, and a quite remarkable one.
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