It Takes Two: Radiance and A Stranger in Olondria

So I sat here at my computer, staring at tumblr posts as the scrolled by, and thought to myself that I hadn’t done much writing–of any stripe–in quite a while.  I’ve really fallen off the book reviewing wagon. My reading hasn’t dropped off in any significant way, but I just don’t have the mental energy to write reviews, edit them, and then get them out.

So instead, I thought back to a few things I’ve read–recently and not so recently–and tried to come up with a theme-y feeling, or feelings-ish theme that I find weaving through at least two novels.

And lo, a theme post is born.

Here I’m going to talk about Cat Valente’s Radiance, and Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria, both of which I’ve read and reviewed in the past six months. (You can find those reviews here on or my Goodreads page).  I’m probably going to be too lazy to go back and find links for them.

It Takes Two: Stories of Dead Women

Radiance is (spoilers?) the story of Severin Unck’s final days, her final film, her final journey out among the stars of the alt-Solar System discovered in the Victorian period and subsequently settled all the way out to Pluto itself.  In A Stranger in Olondria, the reader is presented with the coming-of-age story of Jevick, and islander who travels to the mainland nation of Olondria chasing stories and the learning he has glimpsed via a foreign tutor, but his quest for self-fulfillment is subsumed by the story, of a sick young woman he met on ship during the crossing, who revisits him as a ghost and haunts him, prodding him to write her story as she tells it in Jevick’s dreams.

What these two novels have in common is not simply the fact that each is concerned with the story of a woman who is now dead, but that each woman’s story is being told, in some way, by another character–or characters.  Severin’s father, the most famous filmmaker in that version of the solar system, is trying not only to recreate her last days from the memories and speculations of those around her, but to find a proper film medium in which to tell this story.  Jevick’s obsession with the written word is whatt draws the young woman’s ghost to him, an unrelenting commandment to put words to paper, to save her story in a way that her body, her life, could not be saved.

Each novel is a heartbreaking and stunning look at the power of art.  Art creates and drives people to create; stories tell more than their text.  Art is also sinister and dangerous, driving people to the edge, further, making them vulnerable to the manipulations of others.  Severin was driven to understand the murky ends of a small town on Venus, the inhabitants of which were divers for one of the companies who harvested milk from the great, semi-sentient beings living in Venus’s warm seas.  With her documentaries, she pushed limits in ways her father never would with the drama and intrigue he ladled into his fictional films.  Having grown up in a house where nothing was ever really real, having all been caught on film, Severin spent her life documenting instead of creating fiction.  In this way, Valente continues to play with notions of the real–as every documentary is still an interpretation, and is informed by the experiences and opinions of the documentarians.

A Stranger in Olondria pulls from the vast tradition of telling stories with other stories.  It is an astounding piece of worldbuilding, creating not only the people and living culture of Jevick’s home, Olondria, and other nations, but also the stories by which those places know themselves.  Jevick is so caught up in what he thinks is his story of discovery and growing up–almost a sort of ironic “noble savage” narrative, on his part–that he fails to see what is right in front of him.  In the same way, Severin’s father is so caught up in turning everything into fiction that in the end he doesn’t really understand his daughter, and is obsessed with crafting the perfect fiction to describe her real, non-fictional life.

The importance of these two narratives dealing with the stories of dead women is twofold.  First, in pushing each story-writer character to craft the story of the dead woman in each–via their different but equal motivations–the authors are not telling how these women died, but how they lived.  Though one is dead at the beginning of the novel and the other dies at an important turning point for the main character, the reader is fully immersed in the very real and vibrant lives of these women.

The second aspect of importance is not simply that these women had lives which are a strong part of the narrative, but that they did something with those lives.  These women had, and throughout their respective novels continue to have, agency and effect over the course of their lives.  Severing took control of a life she’d grown up feeling she had no control over, and went out amongst the planets to give context and reality to other worlds.  The ghost haunting Jevick belongs to a young woman who grew up illiterate, daughter of two worlds in a bizarrely colonial landscape that left her little room to be herself.  She dies from exposure to a disease she had contracted while on an adventure, and even in her sickness she refuses to be treated as a simple invalid.  In death, she is powerful and takes on a new life, part of which is the telling of her youth, and the other a hunger for literacy and immortality in the stories that Jevick prizes so highly.

The glint of immortality shines strongly through each of these novels, hastened by their meta-textual themes–film in Radiance, and writing in A Stranger in Olondria.  Not only do these novels share a similar theme, but they also share a carefully crafted duality that is both satisfying and challenging to read.  Though these novels are different in voice and style, they are well-matched.

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A Stranger in Olondria, by Sofia Samatar

Growing
up the younger son of a rich family, made rich from the pepper trade on the
mainland, Jevick has learned that there is a price for everything.   Living in the Tea Islands to the
south of the great empire of Olondria, Jevick’s life is simple, fed on stories
of such wonder that when he has the opportunity to go, he can’t help but take
it.  He believes he is
prepared.  He has read the great
books, been tutored in the language. 
But there are some things you can’t learn simply from books.

A
coincidental meeting with a young woman, ill of a wasting sickness, going to
Olondria with her mother to seek a cure, reminds Jevick of his home, of and all
he is leaving behind, but it is not enough to stop him from fully immersing
himself in Olondrian culture, buying books wherever he can, and succumbing to
the magic of a place he has dreamed about nearly all his life.  The magic of Olondria has always been
in the books, in their ability to call up stories and people long dead, but in
giving himself over to Olondria, Jevick finds himself drawn into a struggle not
of his making. 

A Stranger in Olondria is, structurally,
a descendant of Tolkien’s works. 
Samatar plants the seeds for her world’s cultures through the stories
they tell, the stories Jevick hears and reads during his travels.  But where Tolkien was hampered by his
pastoralism, Samatar’s novel is a triumph of both storytelling and wonder.  The novel’s use of Jevick as
first-person narrator allows it to position its atmosphere of awe and nostalgia
against the regret and injustice elicited by its plot structure without
becoming too grandiose to be affective. 
The story that Jevick tells is relatively short, but juxtaposed against
the huge history of the world he traverses, the novel has a grand scope that
will make readers feel they are reading a much longer tale.

Those
who enjoy the storytelling devices used by writers like Tolkien will enjoy
Samatar’s mythologizing and the epic scale of A Stranger in Olondria. 
Those who are captivated by “stranger in a strange land” stories will
enjoy following Jevick as he is immersed in a culture he has grown up loving second-hand.  Readers looking for a novel they can
slow down and savour need look now further than A Stranger in Olondria.