The first thing you notice about Sofia Samatar’s extraordinary debut novel A Stranger in Olondria, quite literally from the opening sentence, is the hypnotic lyricism of its prose: ‘‘As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbor City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses.’’ On rare occasions, her fondness for figurative language almost overreaches (‘‘We passed through like a wayward draft’’), but there is no doubt that we are in the hands of a gifted stylist whose language alone is enough to draw you into her tale. The other first thing you notice is that the novel features a frontispiece map – often a signal of an oncoming quest narrative – filled with mellifluous but unidentifiable place names, sometimes suggesting vaguely Celtic roots (Belenduri, Balinfeil, Olondria). I confess I’ve come to approach such maps with a degree of apprehension, since experience teaches that some authors who go to such lengths with geography fully intend to trap us there until we’ve passed through every last village somewhere in volume thirteen.
It turns out there’s not much to worry about, though, because A Stranger in Olondria is less a conventional epic than a gorgeously imagined ghost romance, which undermines its apparently familiar quest setting at almost every turn. I have no idea if Samatar intends to revisit this world (although an incipient war at the end certainly leaves open an invitation to do so), but the fact is that her Olondria has less in common with Middle-earth or the Four Lands than with Le Guin’s Orsinia or even Thomas Mann’s Venice, and that map actually becomes quite useful in terms of understanding both the trade routes and cultural isolation that are central to the narrative. Both of these are crucial to the coming of age tale of her narrator, Jevick of Tyom, whom we first meet as a quick and intellectually curious child in the remote and almost entirely illiterate village of Tyom on one of the ‘‘Tea Islands,’’ some distance from the mainland. Jevick’s household includes his brusque father, a successful pepper merchant, his birth mother and stepmother, and his mentally challenged older brother Jom. Realizing that the future of his business – and his family’s well-being – depends on Jevick, the father hires a tutor named Lunre from Bain, the major city and trading port of the fabled and sophisticated Olondria. Jevick takes to his lessons eagerly, discovering, in one truly remarkable passage, that letters and numbers might be arranged to tell stories, and not merely to total up accounts.
From here on, the novel becomes in large part a romance of reading, and a celebration (quite literally) of the power of story. When his father dies unexpectedly, Jevick inherits the responsibility of traveling to Olondria to sell peppers, and aboard the ship encounters a young woman, Jissavet, who is dying of a hereditary wasting disease and hopes to find treatment in Olondria. Upon arrival, Jevick is quickly seduced (also quite literally) by the glamor and excitement of the city, and gives little further thought to Jissavet and her mother – until he finds himself haunted by Jissavet’s ghost, or what the Olondrians refer to as an ‘‘angel,’’ who implores Jevick to rescue her buried body and burn it according to her native tradition. When Jevick reveals that he has met an angel, he finds himself under arrest and at the center of an ongoing struggle between a materialist government determined to wipe out all traces of what they view as local superstition, and a priesthood who view him as a valuable asset in retaining their own power. After escaping a deadly massacre, Jevick undertakes an arduous mountain journey, trying to save a wounded companion while hoping to find a way to release the spirit of Jissavet, with whom he is increasingly falling in love. Jissavet’s own tragic tale, revealed late in the narrative, is only one of several interpolated tales (including Lunre’s) which lend a surprisingly dense complexity to a novel which, by most genre fantasy standards, is relatively modest in scope. But just about every piece is in place here – it’s the rare first novel with no unnecessary parts – and, in terms of its elegant language, its sharp insights into believable characters, and its almost revelatory focus on the value and meaning of language and story, it’s the most impressive and intelligent first novel I expect to see this year, or perhaps for a while longer.