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The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

There are lots of fine books in the world, but every so often there’s a book that just reaches out and grabs me in a very particular way: from start to finish, in a way that lingers long afterwards. The Winged Histories was one of those books, a thing so lovely that I’m still amazed by it, and moved by it in ways that I’m not entirely sure I can articulate.

I read Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria back in 2015 and I was excited when I heard there was a sequel coming out. The Winged Histories is actually a loose companion; it has a different feel and concern than the first book, but takes place in the same world and (if I’m right about this) about the same time as well. But whereas Jevick’s story is obviously about a stranger, and about a man, The Winged Histories is about four women in Olondria itself–though the issue of what is and is not Olondrian actually lies at the heart of the book.

The Winged Histories is divided into four sections, four books, four narratives from four different women. Each narrative has a different voice and perspective; they all sit near each other with the tension of stanzas in a poem, clearly connected and in conversation with each other, but not simply a continuation. The formality of the structure (each book has its own title, an epigraph which comes from within the narrative, and an impersonal relation of relevant history) contrasts with the incredibly personal nature of the narratives themselves.

Samatar is a poet, so it’s not surprising that I thought of poetic structure here, or that just now I thought of the connection between this kind of narrative and confessional poetry. That poetic quality is also very much on display in the sentence level writing which is so astonishingly beautiful in places that I can hardly stand it.

Also, the sense of history and politics and the way the personal and political interact with each other adds up to a world that feels so lived in and real. I believed in Kestenya and its desire for freedom; in the religion of the Stone and the complicated motivations of those who follow it; in the family dynamics that haunt the different stories. The balance of detail and scope can be a hard one to get right, but here it seemed right.

I know I pointed about above that this is a story about four women, but one of the things that I adored here is that it’s not just a story about these four women. There are men here, certainly, but there are women everywhere: mothers, daughters, sisters, friends, lovers. And they all have different views about the world and themselves and their place. One advantage of this overlapping narrative is the ability to show the tensions within a society, where the fault lines lie. This is not a story of simple female solidarity, by any means, but it is a story that’s centered on women and their lives, showing them in relationship to each other in a way that feel really true.

I kept putting this book down while reading it, not because I was bored, but because it was so much that I wanted to absorb it slowly. And I think the beginning could be a bit confusing, because Samatar drops us down into the middle of the world as Tavis herself experiences it. (There is a glossary in the back, which can help.) But mostly, I encourage setting the confusion aside and reading a little further, because the story here is wild and sweet and sharp and beautiful, with a sense of place and characters who make the work of reading entirely worthwhile.

Book source: public library

Book information: 2016, Small Beer Press; adult fantasy

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Recent Reading: Black, Bradshaw, Echols, Samatar

darkest part of the forestThe Darkest Part of the Forest by Holly Black: This really should be its own post, if post length were an indication of how much I love a book. After not quite loving The Coldest Girl in Coldtown (I know. I’m sorry.), I am happy to say that The Darkest Part of the Forest hit all the right notes for me. Siblings trying to save each other? Scary fairies? Fairy tale tropes being played with lovingly? Awesome characters? Yes to all of these things! I also appreciated that there’s diversity on several different fronts. But mostly I just loved Hazel and Jack and Ben and the horned prince. Lovely, lovely book.

sand reckonerThe Sand-Reckoner by Gillian Bradshaw: A couple of people have said how much they liked this Bradshaw book, and having read it I can totally see why. It’s a little sadder than most of her others, a little less clear-cut in terms of good vs. bad. While I’m not enamored of the male genius figures in fiction right now, I will make an exception for Bradshaw’s Archimedes, because he’s so sensitively drawn. And we do see him from other perspectives which I think helps balance that trope out. This has some of Bradshaw’s more lovely writing too. While I doubt any book will ever be quite as beloved for me as The Beacon at Alexandria, this is definitely one I can see myself re-reading.

perfect couplePerfect Couple by Jennifer Echols: I really like Jennifer Echols. When I’m in a certain mood, she’s one of the authors I always reach for. Her books are light without being thoughtless and she often draws in some social commentary. Plus, I really enjoy her characters, who always read to me as actual teens, without losing any of the romance. Perfect Couple is the second book in her latest YA series, The Superlatives. Harper is a photographer; Brody is the school quarterback. They aren’t really alike at all. But when the school votes them “Perfect Couple That Never Was,” Harper starts to wonder if they’re more similar than she thought. One of the things I appreciate about Echols’s books is the variety of experience in her characters and Perfect Couple is no exception. While the conceit of the book may stretch the bounds of believability a tad, I really didn’t care. It’s a smart, well written teen romance, and just what I needed.

stranger in olondriaA Stranger in Olondria by Sofia Samatar: I’ve been meaning to read Samatar’s debut since it came out two years ago. It’s a really engrossing book, which probably deserves more space than I can give it here. It’s about family and myth and home, about history and colonialism. But most of all it’s about books, and a relationship with books. Samatar’s language is dense and beautiful, with occasional moments of iridescent beauty. I thought for awhile about why it’s adult rather than YA, since I can easily read Jevick as in his late teens (I can’t remember how clearly his age is given). But in that nebulous “you’ll know it when you see it way,” it does seem quite clearly adult. I think there’s a lack of immediacy to the story–it’s so clearly Jevick looking back over his past–and that’s the closest I can come to saying what I mean. Regardless, it was a fascinating book, and I’m still mulling over it several days later.

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