Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home—but which his mother calls the Ghost Country. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. Just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.
A Stranger in Olondria is a beautifully written book that manages to evoke the feeling of traveling abroad and of suddenly seeing something gorgeous when you turn a corner. It also has a deep love for books, stories, and the wonder of literacy. I’m not surprised it won the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel in 2014 – the prose is so beautiful that it’s difficult to believe this is Samatar’s debut novel.
The main character, Jevick of Tyom, has lived all his life on his father’s pepper farm. His Olondrian tutor taught him to read and write, since there is no written language in his mother tongue, and Jevick grew up reading about the wonders of Olondria. After his father’s death he finally has the chance to visit the city of Bain on the yearly spice spelling trip.
Jevick’s reactions to visiting Olondria and seeing the beautiful city of Bain reminded me of my visit to Rome, or seeing the Place Masséna in Nice. That wonder of turning a corner and being presented with a beautiful sight that takes your breath away was captured perfectly. Jevick also visits more barren countrysides, which were also described well, conveying the feel of large space and long stretches of land and stars spreading around you.
In addition to the descriptions and the awe of the main character when he travels, the world of the book is built by stories. A lot of the characters tell stories: either their life stories, or a myth of their people. This abundance of stories makes the world seem old and deep, like there is so much history behind it, more stories than this book will be able to tell.
This book is best read in long doses, because it always takes a little bit of time to sink into the writing style, the atmosphere and the long descriptions. I was planning to give the book five stars, but I fell out of the enchantment right at the very end. I assume this was because of the flu I had, which hurt the attention span needed to fully enjoy the story and sink into the writing style.
The plot itself was very unexpected, not going where I was thinking it would go, at all. To be fair, I hadn’t read the back cover description. The plot, for me, was the least important aspect of the book. I was drawn in by the weight of history and by the descriptions. If you are a plot-centered reader, I’d be interested in your reactions to the book.
4 out of 5 stars