A Stranger in Olondria
This is another cover by Kathleen Jennings, and isn’t it lovely? I especially love the background – the city is so jumbled, and so delightfully different from an Australian city, and I love the hint of the ship at the back too.
I’m not much of a one for poetry, lyrically or as prose. That is, I like it, and I appreciate it, but I’m a fairly pragmatic person and I generally prefer story over how the story is told. My absolute preference is for good prose with story if I can get it, but of course that doesn’t always happen. And sometimes the beauty of the prose makes a bit of a non-story into something wonderful. I think particularly of Kij Johnson’s “The Man Who Bridged the Mist”: there’s really not much story to be told, but the way it’s told is so beguiling that I really enjoyed it.
Ok, maybe I’m confused about what I like. Whatever. I know it when I read it.
So here’s the thing. This is a beautifully written novel. It’s lovely. And the story is an intriguing one; it’s all about being a foreigner and how to negotiate that; it’s all about the use and abuse of books, and of religion, and of power; it’s about love, and family, and history. All of these things are great big YES PLEASEs for me.
But it didn’t work. For me, this story needed more straightforward prose, so that I could really get at the ideas. I felt like Samatar was obscuring the ideas, drawing veils or mists around them with delightful words, so they remained frustratingly hard to comprehend and chew on. And there’s also a lack of story, which means that as a novel it didn’t work. I can imagine reading this as a novella – the same length as the Johnson would have been perfect.
All of that said, I did actually finish it, and I don’t feel sad about that. I did want to know what would end up happening to Jevick, and I’m really pleased that the story kept going after what could have been the obvious end-point. I was, and remain, genuinely intrigued by what it said about the power of literacy and how that can be abused, as well as the problems with prizing ignorance (and whether ignorance and illiteracy are necessarily the same thing).
I’m sad I didn’t love this more, given the love it’s been getting from a few quarters and the noises about it getting onto awards shortlists. I understand why it appeals, and that’s cool; I can see parallels between this and Jo Walton’s Among Others, which I adored but I know didn’t work for others. It too had lovely words and what might be called a ‘quiet’ narrative, but I think Walton’s story worked better. However, I am still going to keep looking out for Samatar’s work; after all, I adored “Selkie Stories are for Losers.”