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.
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.
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.