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.

Ancillary Justice, by Ann Leckie

Ancillary Justice is downright confusing
to read for the first hundred or so pages.  And that’s entirely the point.  In a universe-spanning tale of action and intrigue, Leckie
confronts—and forces the reader to confront—the idea of knowledge, particularly
self-knowledge, and how we can truly know anything, particularly ourselves.

Breq,
as she refers to herself, is a person trekking across the universe on a
personal quest.  She is also a
ship, the Justice of Toren, in the
imperial fleet, watching everything her crew does.  She is the mind not only of the ship itself, but also of a
thousand bodies who assist her officers in their duties, maintain order, and
above all serve Anaander Mianaai.           

Jumping
straight over the how of creating
real artificial intelligence and giving it emotion to boot, Leckie takes up the
ethics of the act.  In putting a
ship’s ancillaries—those human bodies who have been refitted to and connected
to the greater mind of the ship—in direct opposition to the ship itself, its
officers, ad the people of annexed worlds, Leckie explores how self-knowledge
is truly created and understood. 
Do we as contemporary humans understand ourselves wholly from a
subjective viewpoint, or only as separate and opposite from those around us, be
they  either sentient or
non-sentient?  She obliquely, and
then directly through one of the characters Breq encounters, asks whether
creating intelligence also creates a soul, and a separate will.

In
a story in which half the characters are different iterations of the same
person, Leckie does an outstanding job at characterization, imbuing her main
characters with that something that
makes a character unique and alive. 
Other than Breq, who is the point-of-view, Leckie doesn’t attempt to get
into the heads of her characters, letting their actions and interactions tell
their stories.  As in life, what is
assumed, what is said about someone, often tells just as much as the truth.

Readers
who enjoy modern space opera and military science fiction will enjoy Leckie’s
vision of a far-future inter-galactic empire, particularly those who enjoy the
vision and knowledge that Alistair Reynolds puts into his novels but want a
little more introspection in terms of character and motivation.  Those who love the exacting
anthropology of Ursula K. Le Guin or Elizabeth Bear’s science fiction will love
the long step into a new future that Leckie takes with her work.  Readers who enjoy explorations of self,
such as those created by Toni Morrison will surely find much to love in the
more cerebral aspects of Leckie’s work.

The Goblin Emperor, by Katherine Addison

For readers in search of a fantasy
novel that breaks from traditional high-fantasy, The Goblin Emperor provides a fresh interpretation of a lot that
has gone stale in recent years. It is the story of Maia, fourth son of the
emperor of the Elvish kingdoms, who becomes the unlikely ruler after the
emperor and his heirs are killed in an airship explosion.  Addison has built a world that deviates
from traditional high fantasy in that people rely on manners and ritual, rather
than physical strength and fighting skills.

From
a world building perspective, there’s a lot going on in this novel.  Rather than creating a setting and
letting the likes of Tolkien do the rest, Addison has imposed a social
structure and language on her world that elicits comparisons to the Elizabethan
world, to the age of the great European empires.  The novel’s elves and goblins are not the caricatures of
purity or darkness that one often finds in fantasy stories, but are instead
more like to sides of a coin.  They
have deep cultural differences that generally keep them as separate societies,
somewhat misunderstood to one another, and yet are obviously part of a shared
world history. 

Maia’s
story is that of the reluctant hero. 
Maia is good where others simply don’t consider goodness a requisite for
the right sort of life.  His is not
merely a battle of wits as stories of empire and maneuvering often are; it is a
fight for empathy where little has generally before been found.  Addison, however, walks a fine line
between the reluctant but noble ruler and a somewhat plaintive prisoner of
fate.  The novel may begin to have
a claustrophobic feel to some readers who don’t fully identify with Maia, as he
is the point-of-view character of the story.  Other characters whom he encounters seem only rough sketches
at first, often with unwieldy names and titles to remember, until they prove
themselves to Maia and he opens up to them, letting the reader find out more. 

Readers
interested in high fantasy, but not looking for a traditional heroic fantasy
story will enjoy Maia’s journey of self-discovery and fight to become a proper
emperor.  For those who love
stories with complicated mythologies and social structures, The Goblin Emperor has enough names,
titles, and belief systems to satisfy. 
Readers unexcited by traditional “elven magic” will delight in the ways
Addison has turned technology into the magic of the realm, reminiscent of the
production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet as
a story of 20th-century empire building.