‘A book,’ says Vandos of Ur-Amakir, ‘is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to the desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears.’ Fanlewas the Wise, the great theologian of Avalei, writes that Kuidva, the God of Words, is ‘a taskmaster with a lead whip.’ Tala of Yenith is said to have kept her books in an iron chest that could not be opened in her presence, else she would lie on the floor, shrieking (page 19).
We often think of books as bastions of knowledge, open to all equally to come drink from their wells. Reading and writing are viewed as gentlemanly or ladylike pastimes. We tend to speak of a book as a bridge, not “a river that has no bridge”, or we depict a book as a garden blooming with words, something pleasurable, not “a place for weeping” or something as threatening as “a garden of spears”. Yet books are these things too.
Language and literacy are powers like any other, they can be used to suppress and to harm. And just like any other art, language can divide as well as unite, show the transcendental nature of humanity as well as its pettiness. And like many knowledges, modes, and paradigms, it is privileged. Sofia’s novel reminded me of all these things as well.
A Stranger in Olondria is gorgeously written in lyrical and evocative prose. It’s textural. It is an experience. It is a journey. This is a book about a young man’s journey into literacy and into another culture, and through these he journeys further into his own. And like all true journeys, this tale is transformative.
Besides the lush prose, imagery, sensory and historical detail (all the things I want to drink in when I travel) I appreciate this novel for its detail in considering the many layers of culture and how these are tied to literacy and language and privilege. I have more thoughts and questions and conclusions to draw than I am currently able to express. Let me say: the world-building is exceptional. And I mean World-Building, with capital letters and All that World implies. Sofia does not ignore class or cultural imperialism, or any of the hierarchies we create in our own world, many of which we are complicit in and uphold without question or even awareness. She has woven a full tapestry, not a cardboard cutout, as the saying goes. This is a novel as rich in social political consideration as it is in language. Which is to say, very. And it is always readable and always immersive.
To say I enjoyed A Stranger in Olondria is insufficient. I did. But more than that. I was left changed. I was left holding my own enjoyment of language knowing I cannot unknow it, knowing that this language too has been used and misused. I was left with the renewed awareness that language shapes me as much as I shape it, if not more. And yet, these beautiful words I had just breathed and lived through; this story. I could not but fully agree with Ravhathos who “cautioned that those who spend long hours engaged in reading or writing should not be spoken to for seven hours afterward” (page 19).
The official blurb: Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home—but which his mother calls the Ghost Country. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. Just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.
In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire’s two most powerful cults. Even as the country simmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of freeing himself by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that most seductive of necromancies, reading.
A Stranger in Olondria was written while the author taught in South Sudan. It is a rich and heady brew which pulls the reader in deeper and still deeper with twists and turns that hearken back to the Gormenghast novels while being as immersive as George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones.
(above text from Small Beer Press’s website)