Adrian Selby celebrates a masterclass in world-building
Turns out Adrian Selby is far from A Stranger In Olondria.
“But preserve your mistrust of the page, for a book is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a desert, a river that has no bridge, a garden of spears.” Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger In Olondria is the story of a young man, Jevick, son of a wealthy pepper merchant. He has lived all his sheltered life in his homeland of Tyom, longing to leave it for mainland Olondria and its legendary city Bain. Cosmopolitan and sophisticated, Bain represents everything Tyom does not, a place (and the subject) of legends, books and high culture. On his first visit to sell his father’s peppers, Bain exceeds his imagination, but he finds himself literally haunted by the ghost of a girl from his homeland, a condition which shortly finds him imprisoned before becoming a pawn in a great sectarian struggle.
Despite the elegantly infused depth Samatar brings to Olondria and its cultures, the focus remains on Jevick. The novel is intensely about him, and, refreshingly for a fantasy protagonist, he’s not the agent of change for much of the novel, but the wide-eyed farmboy. The haunting is an all-consuming experience, but this and the privations that dramatically alter his life’s course are mainly in service of a quite moving coming-of-age tale. Samatar herself, in an interview, said of Jevick, “He is a student… If I had made him a warrior, he would have a certain purpose: to conquer, not to look.” This gives Samatar the licence to explore the sights and sounds of a world that’s new to both the reader and Jevick with stunning intimacy, a book and its protagonist obsessed with literature and language – themes that reflect the author’s cosmopolitan upbringing and her life teaching. The city of Bain, vividly and tonally akin to Constantinople, enraptures Jevick with all its dangerous decadence. It lives up to the exotic heritage he’s read about so obsessively as a lover of literature, rejecting the Tyom culture’s oral tradition for what he perceives as the sophistication of “the north” and its written tradition. It is in Samatar’s astonishing ability to switch narrative registers, to have Jevick quote from poems, travelogues and fiction by authors that feel different to each other, that Olondria, through its literature, becomes such a convincing place to be. This is world-building of the highest order.
Jevick, after disobeying sober advice to avoid Bain’s Feast of Birds, wakes from a night of drink and debauchery to see the ghost of Jissavet, the girl from his homeland who died on the ship that brought him to Bain. Her haunting of him, believed by a forbidden cult to make him a saint, leads to him being put in a sanatorium. Escaping from there with the help of the cult, Jevick ends up a wanted man and, in the isolation of a deserted mansion, he finally confronts Jissavet. She harangues him to write down her story, to be her amanuensis, which he does in return for her help in keeping him alive and safe. Perfectly for this novel, Jevick’s quest is to tell a story. In doing so, he comes of age and ends up fulfilling, quite idiosyncratically, the Hero’s Journey.
The relationship he forges with Jissavet changes everything, and her life’s story has an impact, through him, that creates a lasting and sweeping change in Tyom. This book, unlike any other I’ve read, made me realise that if one cuts life, all that bleeds is stories.
The Winter Road by Adrian Selby is published on 15 November by Orbit.