A Stranger in Olondria, chapter three

Would you like to follow along in Olondria? I’m farther than this, but this is an interesting way to begin this chapter, so take a look:

***

“A book,” says Vandos of Ur-Amakir, “is a fortress, a place of weeping, the key to a 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, or she would lie on the floor, shrieking. She wrote, “Within the pages there are fires, which can rise up, singe the hair, and make the eyelids sting.” Ravhathos called the life of the poet “the fair and fatal road, of which even the dust and stones are dear to my heart,” and cautioned that those who spend long hours engaged in reading or writing should not be spoken to for seven hours afterward. “For they have gone into the Pit, into which they descend on Slopes of Fire, but when they rise, they climb on a Ladder of Stone.” Hothra of Ur-Brome said that his books were “dearer than father or mother,” a sentiment echoed by thousands of other Olondrians through the ages, such as Elathuid the Voyager, who explored the Nissian coast and wrote: “I sat down in the wilderness with my books, and wept for joy.” And the mystic Leiya Tevorova, that brave and unfathomable soul, years before she met her tragic death by water, wrote: “When they put me into the Cold, above the white Lake, in the Loathsome Tower, and when Winter came with its cruel, hard, fierce, dark, sharp and horrible Spirit, my only solace was in my Books, wherein I walked like a Child, or shone in the Dark like a Moth which has its back to a sparkling Fire.”

In my room, in my village, I shone like a moth with its back to a sparkling fire. Master Lunre had taught me his sorcery; I embraced it and swooned in its arms. The drudgery of the schoolroom, the endless copying of letters, the conjugation of verbs – ayein, kayein, bayreinan, bayreinun – all of this led me at last through a curtain of flame into a new world which was a new way of thinking and speaking, a new way of moving, a means of escape. Master Lunre’s massive sea-chest did not hold the bones of a murdered wife, but a series of living lovers with whom he lay down voluptuously, caressing the hair of each one in turn: his books, some written by hand and some from the printing press, that unearthly inventions of the wizards of Asarma. I soon understood why, when I went in to call him for the evening meal, my master could always be found stretched out on his pallet in the same position: his head on his hand, his bare chest gleaming, a thin sheet drawn over his hips, his earrings glinting, his spirit absorbed in the mists of an open book. I, too, soon after I read my first book, Nardien’s Tales for the Tender, succumbed to the magical voices that called to me from their houses of vellum. It was a great wonder to me to come so close to those foreign spirits, to see with the eyes and hear with the ears of those I had never known, to communicate with the dead, to feel that I knew them intimately, and that they knew me more completely than any person I knew in the flesh. I confess that I fell quite hopelessly in love with Tala of Yenith, who was already an old woman when the printing press was invented. When she heard of it, she is said to have danced in ecstasy, crying out, “They have created it! They have created it!” until she fell down in a dead faint. Her biographer writes: “When she rose, she began her rapturous dance again, shouting, “They have created it!” until her strength was wholly exhausted. She continued like this, beyond the control of the people of her House, who feared to subdue her with force, for seven days, whereupon she died …”

The books of my master’s sea chest were histories, lyrics, and romances, as well as a few religious texts and minor philosophical works. In their pages, I entered, for the first time, the tree-lined streets of Bain, and walked in the Garden of Plums beside the city’s green canal. I fought with the rebel Keliadhu against Thul the Heretic, and watched the sky fill with dragons, unfurling fires like cloth of gold. I hunted mushrooms in the Fanlevain and fleet wild deer on the plains, and sailed down the swift Ilbalin through the most radiant orchards on Earth; I stood in a court in Velvalinhu, the dwelling place of the kings, and watched a new Telkan kneel to receive the high crown of black and white silk. My dreams were filled with battles, haunted woods and heroic voyages, and the Drevedi, the Olondrian vampires whose wings are like indigo. Each evening I lay on my pallet, reading by the light of an oil lamp, a tear-shaped bowl made of rust-colored clay – a gift from Master Lunre.

***

Well, what do you think?

I think this passage is a love letter to books – particularly adventure tales – particularly fantasy adventure tales. Put A Stranger in Olandria together with Jo Walton’s Among Others and you’d have, in the first, a love letter to extant SFF; and in this one, a love letter addressed to all the fantasy stories that haven’t yet been written. It’s all so unfamiliar, all those names! And at the same time, perfectly familiar. No wonder SFF readers embraced this book; how could anybody do otherwise in the face of the above paean?

I’m also thinking of the occasional criticism of fantasy that goes like this: All those made-up names! Ugh! Reading these three paragraphs brings that kind of criticism to mind rather forcefully. Unfamiliar names and unfamiliar history are not particularly a characteristic of fantasy, of course. I mean, that’s obvious. You could write a passage very much like the one above, substituting … say … names and history from the Indian Ramayana, and the names would be just as unfamiliar to most modern American readers, while you could just as easily point to a hundred contemporary fantasies where the protagonist is named (for example) Kate, and the action takes place mostly in (say) Atlanta. The thing about unfamiliar names is therefore not a criticism of fantasy; it’s a criticism of unfamiliar settings, that’s all. Even so, it’s true that readers who enjoy specifically secondary world fantasy are probably going to enjoy unfamiliar names and references to unfamiliar history. I love all this. If I’d written the paragraphs above, I wouldn’t have a clue about the places and history to which I referred, but if I brought dragons into the story later, they’d unfurl fire like cloth of gold across the sky. I’m not sure about the vampires with wings “like indigo.” I didn’t leave out a word. Indigo what? I’m not sure. I’m getting an image of immense impressionist wings like smears of color rather than wings that are exactly physical.

At the end of chapter three, Jevick’s father suddenly dies and there’s another tremendously elaborate descriptive scene detailing the mourning customs. Then we move into the main part of the story, as Jevick is now free to journey to Olondria. Chapter four is subtitled At Sea. I’m definitely much happier now that we’ve come to this part of the story, but holding myself back from fully engaging with the story because the first chapter means I expect more cruelty and possibly helplessness in the face of cruelty. But, yep, Samatar’s prose sure is lovely.

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2 thoughts on “A Stranger in Olondria, chapter three”

  1. I find my eyes glazing over, although when I can force my attention I can tell the writing is objectively well done. It just doesn’t seem to be for me. And, possibly due to your original post priming me to think negative, I found anything that I could take as negative in the passage was more noticeable in the reading.

  2. I find I haven’t got the patience for this at the moment. Maybe it’s like poetry that way, it may need to be read slowly and savoured, thought about for a bit before going on to the next bit.

    The words may flow beautifully, but all the strange names makes them almost meaningless for me – having no idea what all those places look like means they don’t evoke pictures in my mind, nor will the names stick around in my memory. So it all blurs together into a sense of “this is an exotic fantasy setting, and the narrator who’se voice hasn’t captivated me likes going on at great length about a lot of things” (IIRC the landscape/setting in the earlier chapter, enumerating all the books he’s read from his master’s chest in this one) “while still not showing any signs of compassion or empathy, making him both hard to like and hard to be interested in” (going on at length about the woman who died after 7 days of raptures about the printing press being invented – very strange goings-on, that he appears to accept at face value and repeats unfeelingly as if he just wants to shock his reader or impress them with his knowledge of details).

    A little bit of his youthful exitement at discovering adventure stories leaks through, but the sea of details and especially names that I can’t remember beyond the end of the sentence (if the sentence isn’t too long) makes it al blur together; and the tone is somehow quite distancing, looking back at his youth remotely, without really being engaged in the emotions.
    The opposite of poetry, in that respect, where you have to feel the meaning as well as enjoying the flow of words and imagery.

    I thought it was just me being pedestrian and incapable of appreciating high-flown prose, but I agree with Elaine, this one (so far) is not for me.

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