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A Stranger in Olondria

A Stranger in Olondria [Kindle Edition]

Sofia Samatar

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Product Description


"Samatar's sensual descriptions create a rich, strange landscape, allowing a lavish adventure to unfold that is haunting and unforgettable." --Library Journal (*starred review*) "A book about the love of books. Her sentences are intoxicating and one can easily be lost in their intricacy... Samatar's beautifully written book is one that will be treasured by book lovers everywhere." --Raul M. Chapa, BookPeople, Austin, TX "Thoroughly engaging and thoroughly original. A story of ghosts and books, treachery and mystery, ingeniously conceived and beautifully written. One of the best fantasy novels I've read in recent years."--Jeffrey Ford, author of The Girl in the Glass "Mesmerizing--a sustained and dreamy enchantment. A Stranger in Olondria reminds both Samatar's characters and her readers of the way stories make us long for far-away, even imaginary, places and how they also bring us home again."--Karen Joy Fowler, New York Times bestselling author of The Jane Austen Book Club "Gorgeous writing, beautiful and sensual and so precise--a Proustian ghost story."--Paul Witcover, author of Tumbling After "Let the world take note of this dazzling and accomplished fantasy. Sofia Samatar's debut novel is both exhilarating epic adventure and loving invocation of what it means to live through story, poetry, language. She writes like the heir of Ursula K. Le Guin and Gene Wolfe."--Kelly Link, author of Magic for Beginners "Imagine an inlaid cabinet, its drawers within drawers filled with spices, roses, amulets, bright cities, bones, and shadows. Sofia Samatar is a merchant of won-ders, and her A Stranger in Olondria is a bookshop of dreams."--Greer Gilman, author of Cloud and Ashes

Product Description

When reading and writing are the most important things in the world.

Jevick, the pepper merchant’s son, has been raised on stories of Olondria, a distant land where books are as common as they are rare in his home—but which his mother calls the Ghost Country. When his father dies and Jevick takes his place on the yearly selling trip to Olondria, Jevick’s life is as close to perfect as he can imagine. Just as he revels in Olondria’s Rabelaisian Feast of Birds, he is pulled drastically off course and becomes haunted by the ghost of an illiterate young girl.

In desperation, Jevick seeks the aid of Olondrian priests and quickly becomes a pawn in the struggle between the empire’s two most powerful cults. Even as the country simmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of freeing himself by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that most seductive of necromancies, reading.

A Stranger in Olondria is a rich, immersive fantasy that circles around and away from and back to the transportation of reading and how ideas can be carried far from their origins in something so simple as a book.


“Samatar’s richly woven debut fantasy takes us far from home. Growing up in the primitive isolation of the Tea Islands, Jevick has longed to travel to the spice markets in Bain, where the family’s pepper harvest is sold. He impatiently devours descriptions and stories when his imperious father returns every season, and the arrival of an Olondrian tutor only adds to the allure of the unknown land. When Jevick finally begins his own voyage, he discovers he is traveling down a perilous path of mystery, passion, and danger that no counsel could have foreseen. A chance meeting of a young woman traveling on a pilgrimage will change the course of Jevick’s life forever. VERDICT Jevick’s journey is an enchanting tale of wonder and superstition, revealing the power of books and the secret traditions of ancient voices. Samatar’s sensual descriptions create a rich, strange landscape, allowing a lavish adventure to unfold that is haunting and unforgettable.”
Library Journal (*starred review*)

"Thoroughly engaging and thoroughly original. A story of ghosts and books, treachery and mystery, ingeniously conceived and beautifully written. One of the best fantasy novels I've read in recent years."—Jeffrey Ford

"Mesmerizing—a sustained and dreamy enchantment. A Stranger in Olondria reminds both Samatar's characters and her readers of the way stories make us long for faraway, even imaginary, places and how they also bring us home again."—Karen Joy Fowler

"Gorgeous writing, beautiful and sensual and so precise—a Proustian ghost story."—Paul Witcover

"Imagine an inlaid cabinet, its drawers within drawers filled with spices, roses, amulets, bright cities, bones, and shadows.  Sofia Samatar is a merchant of wonders, and her A Stranger in Olondria is a bookshop of dreams."—Greer Gilman

In this hypnotic debut Jevik the pepper merchant's son dreams of far Olondria. Raised by his tutors on the written dreams of the distant city, when he gets the opportunity to travel there, his life is thrown off track when he is haunted by the ghost of a girl whom he must face down before he can go free. Reading has never been so seductive, so dangerous.

Sofia Samatar is an American of Somali and Swiss German Mennonite background. Her writing has appeared in Clarkesworld, Stone Telling, Apex, and Strange Horizons. She wrote A Stranger in Olondria in Yambio, South Sudan, where she worked as an English teacher. She has worked in Egypt and now lives in the USA with her family.

Product details

  • Format: Kindle Edition
  • File Size: 642 KB
  • Print Length: 317 pages
  • Page Numbers Source ISBN: 1931520763
  • Publisher: Small Beer Press (30 April 2013)
  • Sold by: Amazon Media EU S.à r.l.
  • Language: English
  • Text-to-Speech: Enabled
  • X-Ray:
  • Word Wise: Not Enabled
  • Amazon Bestsellers Rank: #49,133 Paid in Kindle Store (See Top 100 Paid in Kindle Store)
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews on (beta) 4.5 out of 5 stars  23 reviews
16 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Lots of adjectives, moderate story, very pretty 28 Jan 2014
By H Waterhouse - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
On the surface, this book is a love song to books wrapped in a coming-of-age-travel-story. Jevick is an overeducated misfit when he goes to Paris, er Bain, to carry on the family business, but he is much more interested in the culture than the business. In the process of his cultural education, he comes down with a bad case of ghost. Travails ensue.

It's not that I don't love ornate imagery and fabulous language. It's that by 3/4 of the way through this book, I was longing for something to cut the greasy, heavy, oleaginous feeling of the adjectival piles that litter the story. It feels to me like it could be a much more emotionally engaging story if it weren't paced with two adjectives per noun. I'm sure that's a personal preference issue, because I know a lot of people who enjoyed the ornate filigree of the writing.

I think my favorite part is the end, when he takes all his frustrated passion and turns it around into something that improves the world. But I almost gave up halfway through because the pace was so hard for me.

Read if: You are looking for a Gentleman's Progress And Return Home story, if you love a good unrequitable love story or three, if you want to think about nameless spices that can kill on the wind and be bought in the market.

Skip if: You are an impatient reader, you are going to feel bad about having to use a dictionary to read a book. (For the first time in three or so years, I used my kindle dictionary. "Marmoreal -- made of or relating to marble.")
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars A Stranger In Olondria 7 May 2013
By B. Hughes - Published on
**I received this book for free through Goodreads First Reads**
I really enjoyed this book; there were times where I was a little confused about what was happening (mainly when Avalei was involved, like the Feast Of The Birds and when Jevick visited the High Priestess of Avalei), but then there were moments (such as the last two paragraphs in chapter 19) that more than made up for my confusion. There were passages in this book that were so deep and spoke such universal truths; I had to share those two paragraphs at the end of chapter 19 with my friend because it touched me so much, more than any other single passage in a book has ever done. That was my favorite part of the entire book, despite the sadness that surrounded it.
When I realized that there were ghosts involved, I was a little bit worried (I am the world's biggest scaredy cat), but not once was I afraid while reading this book. Yes, Jissavet got angry at times towards Jevick, but even then you could feel her pain and sympathize with her. It broke my heart when she was sent on from the world of the living and Jevick had to say goodbye to her; I was not sure how he would ever get through that pain.
The ending really touched me, that Jevick took the written language he created to write Jissavet's vallon and taught the people of his land to read. He allowed Jissavet to live on even more so than her vallon did. It was his show of love towards her.
I cannot wait to read it a second time to pick up anything that I missed in this first reading of it. For now though, I will savor my memories of Jevick, Jissavet, Lunre, etc.
4 of 5 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars sumptuous, graceful, hauntingly beautiful...words 7 Feb 2014
By Andreea Pausan - Published on
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
An amazing book about books "deposits of words", about love and lost and absolution.

Jevick from the island of Tyom, travels as a pepper merchant to the fabled country of Olondria, where his tutor came from. He is a youth hungry for stories, an avid reader. On the ship to Olondria, he meets another islander, Jissavet, who is mortally ill and goes to a sanatorium, accompanied by her mother and an old servant. Once in the land of his dreams, the wondrous city of Bain, Jevick begins to experience live what he has only read about before. Caught in a feats of a local goddess, he becomes hunted by the ghost of Jissavet, now dead and buried, which was against the customers of their island, where the dead were burned together with their jut (a kind of external soul). According to the Olondrian beliefs, a haunted man is an angel, and Jevick becomes a peon in the fight between politics and religion, ultimately between the poor illiterate and the rich.

It is the story of a man in love with an impossible, haunted by the terrible beauty of words, chasing stories and learning about truth and suffering, love and generosity, loss and poverty, envy and death, belief, personal suffering and redemption. A story with and about words, written in one of the most exquisitely poetic speeches I have witnessed. The sumptuous descriptions, the hauntingly beautiful scenery, the stories and the songs the characters share make this book of one the best I have read in a long while.
5 of 7 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Swoon 27 Jun 2013
By Master Dioshi - Published on
This is a swooningly beautiful book. The richness of the prose evokes Jean Genet's "The Miracle of the Rose" and Sylvia Townsend Warner's "Kingdoms of Elfin". Both comparisons meant to be high praise of Samatar's prose style. The novel begs to be read aloud, as it reads like a long prose poem. It feels often as if the author built this world based solely on how the descriptions of it would sound, resulting in a spontaneous, effortlessly unfurling example of world building. This world feels grown, not erected. Again, I mean that as high praise. I have read other great reviews about the book's exploration of our relationship with language, particularly the excellent review by Amal El-Montar at ( I would add that the book also explores the idea that biculturality, of leaving one's original culture and learning another and having to pick and choose elements from more than one culture and construct a more personal and considered sense of self, is a rich and essential part of human experience. The negotiation between two poles and the refusal to be one thing or another serves as subtext for what this book itself does. It resists the pressure to be only prose or only poetry; only literary fiction or speculative fiction; only thoughtful or only heartfelt. It is neither and it is both and confidently negotiates its own place between polarities to come up with its own unique flavors, rhythms and values. If I have read a better new book this year, I can not recall it. Very highly recommended.
2 of 3 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Gorgeous writing, a real sense of place 1 Sep 2013
By Ian Mond - Published on
One of the key features of A Stranger in Olondria is its lyrical and evocative prose. This isn't a case of a writer using 10 words when they could use 3. Rather each word feels like it's been chosen with great care and purpose. And for a novel that's about language and storytelling this should come as no surprise.

But one thing that struck me about the writing is its clarity. Take
this small section as an example:

"After the rains the city was tranquil and glittering, freshly washed, the high roofs shining, the trees iridescent with moisture, and all seemed calm and quiet because of the passing storm. The clear air sparkled with the cold light of diamonds. The wind coming off the sea were cool, and there was no dust in the city; it had all been washed away with the heat and the discomfort, and the sky had been washed as well and rose in pale, diaphanous layers of ether, streaked with gauzy clouds in blue and gold. Slowly the cafes emptied and the waiters sat down to play londo. Children came out to race painted boats in the gutters; they laughed and shouted down the wet streets in the opalescent air, while above them white-shawled grandmothers dragged chairs out onto the balconies."

Not only does this clearly establish a sense of place, but it reads so well. The words just slide straight from the eye into the mind with a direct line to the imagination. And it's gorgeous clarity like this that gives the novel its immersive quality.

Not everyone agrees though. Ana Grilo writing for Kirkus states:

"Olondria's prose is poetic, detailed and richly depictive. It is
exactly the type of writing that I personally find most difficult to engage with because I often feel that the careful construction of the writing has trumped all else. The storytelling literally tells a lot and describes everything. On a positive note, this is good since it creates a great sense of place. But it doesn't really serve the story very well, as the richness of description didn't quite transfer into a richness of character development. Things happen to Jevick, and he describes them in-depth--yet I never got a real sense of who he was. This stranger in Olondria remains a complete stranger to me."

Obviously I disagree. I think Jevick comes alive through both the writing but also his own research into language and literature. It's only later in the book - as I point out below - that Jevick and the novel as a whole fall flat. But that wasn't due to the poetry and richness of Samatar's prose. In fact I love how she scatters snippets from other authors through the book, including the retelling of a number of creation myths that only add vibrancy to this world and these characters that Samatar has crafted.

What hurt the novel for me is something Cheryl Morgan points out in her review of the book. She says:

"I have a small niggle with the book's structure in that, when Jevick finally gets to make his peace with Jissavet and hear her life story, the book gets side-tracked somewhat. It is a very long section, told in a fairly disjointed manner. Had I been editing the book, I might have asked if some of Jissavet's story could not have been revealed earlier so as to break that up."

I couldn't agree more, but for me it was more than a niggle. I appreciate that the story of Jissavet is a critical element of the novel, however I found that it weighed down the last third of the book. It's depressing and tragic and sad but also feels like it's made its point about a third of the way through its telling. For me this meant that when we finally return to Jevick and his plight I discovered I'd stopped caring, I just wanted the novel to end. And it's a shame because A Stranger in Olondria builds to an emotional conclusion as Jevick returns home and his story comes full circle. The book did take 10 years to write and I wonder whether the placement of Jissavet's story and its length was something that Samatar debated.

In the end, though, I think A Stranger in Olondria should be mandatory reading for anyone interested in the fantasy genre. The writing alone is a masterclass in imagery, clarity and sense of place and nearly overcomes any of the novels structural deficiencies.
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