Reading A Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar was an odd experience. I’d been looking forward to this novel for a long time. In theory, it looked right up my alley. I expected to be blown away. Instead, I ended up abandoning the novel at about the midway point. Yet, even though I gave up on it, there’s also a lot to love about it. I may even find myself going back to it, one day.
Plot-wise, the novel is relatively straightforward. Jevick is the son of a pepper farmer/merchant. He grows up on a distant island, hearing stories about the mainland, many from a tutor hired by his father. This tutor also introduces him to the pleasures of reading. When his father dies, Jevick takes his place on the annual trip to the mainland to sell pepper. Once there, he becomes enamored of city life and the availability of untold numbers of books. He also finds himself haunted by the ghost of a girl, and when he seeks help from Olondrian priests, he becomes involved in the struggle between powerful cults.
What’s possibly this novel’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: Sofia Samatar’s gorgeously rich but overly descriptive prose. Open this novel to any page and you’ll find a long, beautiful paragraph full of delicately constructed sentences, interesting images, language that resonates with joy and meaning. Once Jevick gets to the city of Bain, his delight in the sights and sounds of the city is expressed in what feels like a torrent of wonder. At the same time, as lovely as the sentences are, some of them just have no real import. I can deal with an author indulging in this type of thing here and there. Unfortunately, Samatar indulges in it throughout the book, to the extent that you begin feeling that maybe it’s okay to skip a paragraph here and there. It’s beautiful, but sadly, it becomes meaningless after a while.
At the same time, there’s a plot here. And an interesting, if somewhat faceless, main character—very much an observer who neglects to observe himself. And many interesting thoughts about art and religion, life and death, culture shock and adaptation. Jevick’s discovery of the written word and the world it opens up for him is something any avid reader can probably connect with. There is so much in this novel that I want to know more about.
There’s a beautiful novella hiding inside this novel—one in which the ideas are expressed with clarity and purpose, the plot is allowed to shine, and the prose finds a balance between insight and bloat. I want to know how this story ends. I even want to know more about Olondria. I’m the kind of reader who revels in lyrical, evocative prose. Sofia Samatar just didn’t manage to strike the kind of balance between evoking atmosphere and nailing down her plot and ideas in the way that authors like Catherynne M. Valente achieve with equally elaborate prose. I wanted to like A Stranger in Olondria, but I ended up putting it down after reading almost exactly half of it, simply because I got tired of fighting through the underbrush to reach the destination.