Review: The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
Three years ago, I opened a book which was a revelation to me, which not only showed me a new world but which changed my own approach to writing in a way that few books have. This book was Sofia Samatar’s debut novel, A Stranger in Olondria. It’s a strange, rich, beautiful book which gathered a heap of fantasy genre awards—the World Fantasy Award, the British Fantasy Award and the Crawford Award—even as it blurred and rewrote standard fantasy tropes. It’s a fantasy novel that is unabashedly literary, in love with language itself—just like its narrator, the young Jevick of Tyom, who discovers reading for the first time as a teenager. It’s a story about stories: characters are constantly telling stories to one another, narratives nested within narrative--legends, histories, soaring and heart-breaking love stories. It’s a book about reading itself: what reading means, how the written word can both empower and oppress. And in a fantasy genre that has been dominated by books based upon medieval Europe (at least in the Western contemporary field of fantasy), A Stranger in Olondria is a book that clearly draws inspiration from non-European cultures, and does so with depth and detail that I’ve never before seen. The worlds depicted in this book—the empire of Olondria and the narrator’s home in the Tea Islands—are clearly imaginary; they are not thinly disguised real-world analogues. Yet they are imagined with such depth and texture. One could easily believe that these places actually existed in a historical past. I could close this book and almost believe that Olondria and the Tea Islands exist somewhere across the sea, alongside all the other real-life countries I’ve yet to see.
So, to get to my point: I was ridiculously excited to return to the world of A Stranger in Olondria with Samatar’s follow-up novel, The Winged Histories.
The Winged Histories is a companion novel to A Stranger in Olondria, not a sequel. A Stranger in Olondria followed the adventures of a naïve young man, Jevick, who journeys to the Olondrian Empire and inadvertently becomes a political pawn who—at the end of his journey—has unwillingly helped instigate a civil war. The Winged Histories is the story of that war.
In many ways, this follow-up novel is more challenging than the first. A Stranger in Olondria had a relatively straightforward, linear presentation in the narrative of Jevick. In The Winged Histories, the narrative is split among four different perspectives, four different women. Tavis is the warrior, a rebellious young woman who gives up a comfortable life in the Olondrian aristocracy to join the military and become a captain of war. Tialon is the opposite of a woman of action; she’s a trapped, passive scholar, daughter of a tyrannical priest whose oppression of other religions provokes a national rebellion. (Readers may recognize Tialon as a minor character in A Stranger in Olondria). Seren is Tavis’ lover, a singer of the mountains. And Siski is Tavis’ sister, who seems to live the superficial life of a rich, spoiled party-girl, but whose seemingly carefree ways hide a broken heart.
Four women and four distinctly different voices. Tavis is the closest to a central character, as she is directly connected to the narratives of Seren and Siski, and an instrumental force in the Olondrian civil war. In some ways, she was also the hardest character for me to connect with. Samatar explores complicated ideas of identity in her novel. Tavis identifies herself as “Kestenyi,” an ethnic group subjugated years ago into the Olondrian empire, but which has always had a restive relationship with the central government. Many Kestenyi long for political independence. Tavis and her sister Siski are indeed “Kestenyi” through their father’s line—but what does it mean to identify as Kestenyi when their own grandfather betrayed a Kestenyi rebellion to central authorities? What does it mean to be Kestenyi when Tavis’ family has also married into the bloodline of the other major ethnic groups of Olondria, when Tavis’ family has become Olondrian aristocracy? It is through her father’s line that Tavis can claim Kestenyi blood, and yet it is her father’s line which betrayed the Kestenyi and (in Tavis’ eyes) continues to betray them. How is it that, of all the groups in Olondria that she could potentially identify with, the traditional nomadic Kestenyi culture (which in a sense is not really “hers”; she did not grow up with it) is the one that she takes up?
These are complicated questions, and they are not clearly answered. Children turn against their parents in this novel; families are torn apart by war. While Tavis plots and fights for an independent Kestenya, her sister Siski embraces the luxuriant, decadent life of an Olondrian aristocrat and socialite. Tavis purportedly fights on behalf of her nomadic Kestenyi lover, yet her lover Seren begs her not to go to war. And Tialon the Priestess of the Stone, whose father is killed in Tavis’ rebellion, must after a lifetime of filial submission find her own desires and identity.
This is a gorgeously written book, as anyone familiar with Samatar’s previous work would expect. The book starts off by throwing the reader into Tavis’ narrative, with little in the way of guidance; yet even as I started off a little confused, rich and beautiful details like this description of Tavis at a military encampment drew me in: “. . . they brought hot wine stewed with raspberries and I sipped it slowly and watched the candle flames torn by the wind.”
Slowly, the vast complicated story of this Olondrian war—and of Olondria, and of these characters themselves—is revealed. Each section of the book is told from a different character viewpoint, and as the book advances these different viewpoints cast new light upon each other and what’s come before, changing our understanding of events. What’s also remarkable is how tonally and formally distinct these sections are, yet how they work together to form a resonant whole. At first Tavis’ story seems the well-worn staple of the rebellious princess turned warrior, yet it becomes more complicated than we expect. Tialon’s story of passivity and trapped loneliness is heart-breaking. The singer Seren’s story surprises with its completely different, daring form: she tells her story as a soaringly beautiful prose-poem, a song. Siski sees herself as the heroine of a romantic novel, and her story in part reads like something from a nineteenth century English novel—but then it veers daringly into completely unexpected territory, a thrilling tonal shift that upends the reader’s understanding of all that’s happened before.
There is, literally, too much to say for me to say about this novel. It’s a story about war that barely features any battle scenes; it’s a story about identity, culture, colonialism, empire. It’s a piercingly intimate family drama even as it also takes the form of epic fantasy. It’s a beautiful love story that also contains elements of horror. And like A Stranger in Olondria, it’s a story about story-telling—about how we tell stories to ourselves and to one another to understand our world. In short: you should read this book.