Book review: A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar

This is a slightly expanded version of the review I posted to Goodreads.

Upfront, I should say that I knew I would enjoy this novel on a prose level, because I’m a huge fan of Sofia’s short fiction. We are warm acquaintances; I published her work in Apex during my tenure there, and I picked up A Stranger in Olondria last year at WisCon. I regret that I didn’t read it sooner!

So, I was ready for her prose style, which is lush, gorgeous, and thoroughly precise. There are no wasted words, phrases, or sentences here. It is designed to be savored slowly. Don’t rush through this one.

A Stranger in Olondria is a coming-of-age, boy-goes-to-the-city, revenge-quest ghost story, where the magic that releases the ghost in question is released through writing. It tackles questions of nature, belief, and religion, without losing track of its emotional core or its redemption quest storyline.

This book itself reflects the magic of Jevick’s world through its storytelling prose style. Samatar has gorgeous turns of phrase on nearly every page. Her worldbuilding of multiple cultures and regions experienced by Jevick (our protagonist) is deftly handled, and she nails down what could easily be a rather nebulous relationship between him and Jissavet, the ghost that he needs to free. Jevick somehow remains both part of his world and separate from it as he travels along, and the liminal spaces where he dwells feel just as real as the “real world” in which he is also simultaneously functioning. 

This story is not told in strictly straight lines from a plot perspective. Instead, we move through movement and metaphor, through joy and rapture and despair, through seasons and weather, through plenty and privation, and through choices made among friends, allies, and enemies that bring us to the conclusion of the story. And yet the central relationship between Jevick and Jissivet remains, at its core, truthful and wonderfully complex for all its apparent simplicity.

This book is going on my Hugo Award ballot this year.


About Lynne M. Thomas

Lynne M. Thomas is a nine time Hugo Award winning editor and podcaster. In her day job, she is Head of the Rare Book and Manuscript Library at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
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