What if you came from a country with a purely oral tradition, and then you had to learn the written language of another culture? That's the magical question at the heart of a brilliant new novel, Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria.
The hero of Samatar's novel, the mystic Jevick of Tyom, is a refreshing main character for a fantasy book. He's not a magical savior — he's a mostly normal person, who's not all that interested at first in the troubles that he's stirring up. Even as he learns the written language of a new culture, this makes him rare but not the most special person ever. He's never interested in taking power or privilege for himself. Too often the storyline of a man thrust into things much bigger than himself ends with him taking control over the realm — but not here.
Jevick comes from Tyom, part of a small chain of islands to the south of Olondria, which is the country whose written language he eventually learns. His father, a wealthy merchant, makes a yearly trading trip to the Northern land. He both punishes his son's interest in this foreign land and encourages it, by hiring an Olondrian scholar to come be the boy’s tutor. After his father’s death, it's Jevick’s turn to visit the far-off country he has read and learned so much about.
Olondria is crafted beautifully by Samatar, even as we witness unspeakable violence and terror. Even as Jevick against the warnings of everyone around him participates in one of the religious festivals of Olondria and seems to lose control of his body in a hedonistic mob mentality. Even in the moments when the action of the book slows down the beauty of Samatar’s description is such that you still find yourself entranced by the world she builds around you. One downside of this descriptive gift is there are a number of descriptions of locations that stick with you in the first pages of the novel and then it feels like you never actually visit any of the sites mentioned which is disappointing.
When Jevick comes into Olondria as a merchant and outsider, he is also a living representation of the different ideologies tearing Olondria apart. The country is in the middle of a cold (and occasionally hot) religious civil war between the Old Religion and the newer Stone Religion. There are a number of differences in the religions but one of the two main ones is language, the Old Religion focuses on an oral tradition of learning while the Priests of the Stone use written language. Lying under this is the complex subject of class, it’s clearly stated the the old religion has more followers in rural folks and the poorer classes of the big cities. Jevick and his own background with language and the relationship to the war are obvious here. The other main difference is the visitation and worship of angels which is a big deal in the Old Religion and forbidden by the Priests of the Stone who just happen to currently be in power. So when Jevick participates in an traditional religious celebration but wakes up haunted by the angel of a woman he barely knows, Jissavet, he is thrust into the forefront of the conflict.
So in a way Jevick becomes special, even regarded as a saint, because of this spirit that haunts and torments him. However it is complicated by the fact that he is special, in that way that saints and mystics both are and aren’t special. They are all supposed to be examples of ordinary men and women that inspire us to their levels of devotion. At the same time they have touched something beyond us, something bigger and so just by virtue of that they are something special. This special-ness also comes at a great cost: The angel wants things from Jevick while all he wants to be is free of it. However there are people on both sides who wish to use him from their own ends.
The novel is full of subtle ideas and questions that never quite get answered. It is those
dichotomies that lie at the heart of this novel, such as what is superstition and what is magic? How much do class and other prejudices affect how we view someone’s religion? Jevick often believes himself above such things, as does the current religious regime of Olondria, but in a way both are haunted until they believe.
What is language, is it something written, something spoken, a combination of the two or just a concept absent of everything we add to it? In a number of instances Samatar uses found text from Olondiran books, that Jevick is reading, to highlight the way in which what Jevick has learned is not detailed enough to help him or seems to have been deliberately altered. It’s another idea about language that’s touched on in the book, once something is written it is permanent in a way but it can also be changed by those who write it down. Samatar gives us no easy answers and there are no villains in the book — simply ordinary people doing what they believe is right.