As I was a stranger in Olondria, I knew nothing of the splendor of its coasts, nor of Bain, the Harbour City, whose lights and colors spill into the ocean like a cataract of roses. I did not know the vastness of the spice markets of Bain, where the merchants are delirious with scents, I had never seen the morning mists adrift above the surface of the green Illoun, of which the poets sing; I had never seen a woman with gems in her hair, nor observed the copper glinting of the domes, nor stood upon the melancholy beaches of the south while the wind brought in the sadness from the sea…
The opening paragraph is one of my favorites that I have read so far in 2019.
I have had this on my reading list since 2015. I think I added it originally because it won a World Fantasy Award. I have read five other books that won the WFA award for best novel; my favorite is Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, but I would probably put this one second. (Still on my list for someday: The Bone Clocks, Declare, & The Antelope Wife).
The protagonist is Jevick, a pepper merchant’s son. Every year his father travels to the spice markets in Bain, the capital city of Olondria, to sell pepper. When his father dies, Jevick makes the trip for the first time. He becomes haunted by the ghost of a young girl, Jessavet, who demands that he write down the story of her life.
This is not a fast-paced book, especially in the early chapters. Samatar takes her time establishing her setting before important things really start happening, and the fairytale feeling of the first half of the book leads to something darker. There are some political conflicts taking place in Olondria, but because the main character is an outsider who tries to stay out of those things, we don’t learn much about what is happening on that front.
This is very much a book about books and reading. Jevick’s descriptions of the books he reads are enchanting. The characters often tell stories, and at least one of them would be a great story on its own. And it has some interesting things to say about the experience of reading! I won’t get into that here, but Abigail Nussbaum has a long discussion of this issue in her review at her blog, Asking the Wrong Questions.
I liked the characters, but I think that this will be one of those books that I remember primarily for other things: the setting, the writing style, and the ideas. But it is one of the best fantasy novels I have read in the last few years, and I plan on reading the sequel (The Winged Histories) sometime.