Adrian Selby cel­e­brates a mas­ter­class in world-build­ing

SFX - - Contents - By Sofia Sa­matar, 2013

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.

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