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. 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. But 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. Yet even as the country shimmers on the cusp of war, he must face his ghost and learn her story before he has any chance of becoming free by setting her free: an ordeal that challenges his understanding of art and life, home and exile, and the limits of that seductive necromancy, reading.
How did I decide to buy this book? I must have seen a review of it somewhere and added it to my wishlist.1 It’s exactly along the lines of what I like best in a fantasy book: non-European style countries, travel, adventure, and intrigue, with spooky magical things. The only thing that would’ve made it better is if there’d been dragons somewhere and if the protagonist were a woman.
The writing is so lyrical and beautiful! SO BEAUTIFUL. It’s what kept me reading even after I became frustrated with the pacing, which is slow as molasses. I liked that writing and I wanted to keep reading it, even if I had to keep taking breaks to read something a little faster.
This is a very slow book; it takes forever to actually get to Olondria and then it takes even longer to get anywhere else. I’ve seen some comparisons to older styles of fantasy (Tolkien) and that is probably true. I could never get interested in Tolkien’s slowpoke plotlines, either.
So, good writing, slow pacing– what about the characters? I really liked them, though it was disappointing that the most interesting character (Jissavet) was also the deadest. Jevick, the protagonist, reminds me of a recent college grad who takes a year off to go abroad and gets locked up in a prison for holding someone else’s drugs. He’s smart, but fate is determined to be unkind to him. He’s also very passive; a lot of things happen to him, and I suppose he kind of represses his angst about that until the end when he explodes into action.
I’m definitely going to read any other books Sofia Samatar writes, and I’ll probably end up rereading this one some day in the future. It’s one of those books that benefits from rereading, I think.
Read: October 9-17, 2014
- Previous to it winning the 2014 World Fantasy Award for best novel. Congrats! ↩