My rating: 5 of 5 stars
“A Stranger in Olondria” lured me in to the worlds evoked by Samatar’s lush, poetic writing style. I had heard this was a companion piece to that book, so naturally sought it out. However, this is a very different book and only very tangentially (if at all) related – it stands wholly on its own. And – I liked it even better. The elements that I loved about Samatar’s writing are all still here. While the form of the story is still not that of a traditional narrative, I think that the format used here is more successful.
In ‘The Winged Histories,’ through four separate but interlocked stories, Samatar explores themes including nationalism, religion, war, and power, guilt and responsibility, freedom and oppression – and how these forces affect those whose lives are touched by them. I’m not sure I can fully logically justify the comparison, but as a whole, the book really reminded me quite a lot of (a shorter, more beautifully written) “War and Peace.”
The first story is that of Tavis – a rich girl with dreams of becoming a swordmaiden. In pursuit of those dreams, she runs away into the hills and, as part of a bandit gang, is infected with a passionate fervor for liberating the nation of Kestenya. On the face of it, this is a common plot line for fantasy novels, to the point of being a cliche. But is Tavis a hero? Are her goals truly noble? Do they even make sense in the context of her background? Is violence the way to make the world a better place? It’s a complex, multi-faceted character sketch which effectively raises all kinds of thoughts regarding the intersection of personal and national identity.
In the second part, another way of “making the world a better place” is explored. And it may me even worse than the way of the sword. We see the rise of a new religion through Tialon, the daughter of its main prophet. I very much enjoyed (and agreed with) this section, but I have to admit that it is the least nuanced part of the book. The author is clearly no fan of organized religion. Tialon is unequivocally oppressed, abused and brainwashed by her father and his radical beliefs. But her story is still wholly engaging, and I very much liked the illustration of how ancient texts can inform our understanding – but are undoubtedly always filtered through our own judgement, deciding what words are meaningful and which should be disregarded.
Another way to change the world might be through art and music; the creative force. In the third section we meet Seren. The songs she has grown up with have come down to her unchanged through millennia. The women she knows express their very individual feelings through set forms. But perhaps Seren can write her own songs… This section, as appropriate for one told by a poet, is only tenuously ‘prose,’ falling more into the ‘poetry’ side of the spectrum.
The final section of the book is narrated by Siski, a young woman who lives very much within the strictures of society, growing up without any major rebellion against the idea of doing what is expected of her. And what is expected of her seems to be that she will marry her beloved cousin Dasya in a mutually advantageous union. But a terrible secret is revealed, and Siski’s reaction to that revelation may change everything. Rather than changing the world, Siski seeks to escape the horrors and pain of the world in a desperate flight into libertinage.
The lives of these four very disparate women are more intimately connected than one might guess, and the ways in which their lives touch really draws the book together as a whole. Also, the ‘feel’ of the book begins as very much ‘straight’ historical fiction – but there’s a fantasy (or horror?) element that gradually sneaks in, becomes critical to the story, and also works extremely well on several levels.
If this had been a work of historical fiction analyzing the factions and crises of a real place, it would undoubtedly be hailed as a monumental novel capturing the complexity and soul of a nation. Because it is an imaginary place, it won’t be. But it truly is a masterful work.