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A Stranger in Olondria: a novel Paperback – April 30, 2013

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Editorial Reviews


"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."

"The excerpt from Sofia Samatar's compelling novel A Stranger in Olondria should be enough to make you run out and buy the book. Just don't overlook her short "Selkie Stories Are for Losers," the best story about loss and love and selkies I've read in years."
— K. Tempest Bradford, NPR

"Sofia Samatar's debut fantasy A Stranger in Olondria is gloriously vivid and rich."
— Adam Roberts, The Guardian, Best Science Fiction Books of 2013

"Books can limit our experiences and reinforce the structures of empire. They can also transport us outside existing structures. The same book may do both in different ways or for different people. Samatar has written a novel that captures the ecstasy and pain of encountering the world through books, showing us bits and pieces of our contemporary world while also transporting us into a new one."

"The novel is full of subtle ideas and questions that never quite get answered. It is those dichotomies that lie at the heart of this novel, such as what is superstition and what is magic? How much do class and other prejudices affect how we view someone’s religion? Jevick often believes himself above such things, as does the current religious regime of Olondria, but in a way both are haunted until they believe. . . . Samatar gives us no easy answers and there are no villains in the book — simply ordinary people doing what they believe is right.
— io9.com

“As you might expect (or hope) from a novel that is in part about the painting of worlds with words, the prose in Stranger is glorious. Whether through imaginative individual word choices—my favourite here being the merchants rendered “delirious” by their own spices . . . Samatar is adept at evoking place, mood, and the impact of what is seen on the one describing it for us.”
Strange Horizons

"Vivid, gripping, and shot through with a love of books."
— Graham Sleight, Locus

"A richly rewarding experience for those who love prose poetry and non-traditional narratives. Sofia Samatar’s debut novel is a fine exemplar of bibliomancy."
— Craig Laurence Gidney (Sea Swallow Me)

"With characteristic wit, poise, and eloquence, Samatar delivers a story about our vulnerability to language and literature, and the simultaneous experience of power and surrender inherent in the acts of writing and reading."
— Amal El-Mohtar, Tor.com

"If you want to lose yourself in the language of a book, this is the one you should read first. Samatar's prose is evocative and immediate, sweeping you into the complex plot and the world of Jevick, a pepper merchant's son."
— xojane

"A journey that is as familiar and foreign as a land in a dream. It’s a study of two traditions, written and oral, and how they intersect. Samatar uses exquisite language and precise details to craft a believable world filled with sight, sound and scent."
Fantasy Literature

"Samatar's sensual descriptions create a rich, strange landscape, allowing a lavish adventure to unfold that is haunting and unforgettable."
Library Journal (*starred review*)

“Sofia Samatar has an expansive imagination, a poetic and elegant style, and she writes stories so rich, with characters so full of life, they haunt you long after the story ends. A real pleasure.”
— Chris Abani, author of GraceLand and The Virgin of Flames

"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 Get in Trouble

"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, author of Cloud & Ashes

About the Author

Sofia Samatar is an American of Somali and Swiss-German Mennonite background. She wrote A Stranger in Olandria in Yambio, South Sudan, where she worked as an English teacher. She has worked in Egypt and is pursuing a PhD in African Languages and Literature at the University of Madison, WI.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 320 pages
  • Publisher: Small Beer Press (April 30, 2013)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1931520763
  • ISBN-13: 978-1931520768
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1.2 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (30 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #335,489 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

Sofia Samatar is the author of the novel A Stranger in Olondria (Small Beer Press, 2013). She holds a PhD from the Department of African Languages and Literature at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she specialized in Egyptian and Sudanese fiction. Her poetry, short fiction and reviews have appeared in a number of places, including Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, Stone Telling, and Goblin Fruit. Sofia is Nonfiction and Poetry Editor for Interfictions Online: A Journal of Interstitial Arts. Find out more at www.sofiasamatar.com.

Customer Reviews

4.3 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

22 of 27 people found the following review helpful By H Waterhouse on January 28, 2014
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.")
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By B. Hughes on May 7, 2013
Format: Paperback
**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.
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4 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Andreea Pausan on February 7, 2014
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.
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5 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Master Dioshi on June 26, 2013
Format: Paperback
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 tor.com (http://www.tor.com/blogs/2013/05/review-a-stranger-in-olondria-by-sofia-samatar). 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.
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