Sofia Samatar’s Winged Histories

Months back when I posted a list of my top twenty favourite fantasy series I was unaware that Sofia Samatar was going to release a companion piece to her brilliant A Stranger in Olondria. Now that this book has been released, and I purchased and devoured it almost immediately, I would definitely edit the list to include her – not sure who I would remove, but someone would definitely need to be removed.

As I’ve mentioned before A Stranger in Olondria is one of the best fantasy novels I’ve read in a very long time, both in form and content, and was also one of the three favourite novels of any genre that I’ve read in the past decade (the other two being Bolaño’s 2666 and Kingsnorth’s The Wake). Her recent novel, The Winged Histories, is just as amazing as Stranger – I’m still going back and forth about which one I like more – and, just like Stranger I’m annoyed with myself for having finished so quickly.  I really tried to stretch it out, and it’s not like I don’t have excuses to stretch it out (what with all the professional development and work related reading I should have been doing), but I couldn’t last more than a month and a half, even though I rationed myself to small passages a day at one point. But since I could have finished it in a couple days, I have to congratulate myself on demonstrating some self-control.

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And Samatar herself already described the kind of feeling that comes with reading a beautiful book, when you’re reaching the end, near the end of A Stranger in Olondria when her narrator proclaims:

The silence. End of all poetry, all romances. Earlier, frightened, you began to have some intimation of it: so many pages had been turned, the book was so heavy in one hand, so light in the other, thinning toward the end. Still, you consoled yourself. You were not quite at the end of the story, at that terrible flyleaf, blank like a shuttered window: there were still a few pages under your thumb, still sought and treasured. Oh, was it possible to read more slowly? – No. The end approached, inexorable, at the same measured pace. The last page, the last of the shining word! And there – the end of the book. The hard cover which, when you turn it, gives you only this leather stamped with old roses and shields. […] Then the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.

I’m not the first reader who has noticed this passage and compared it to their experience of reading the book in which it resides (and now will compare it the experience of reading The Winged Histories. Of course I don’t believe Samatar intended this passage to apply to herself because, based on what she has written elsewhere and the interviews she has given, she is not like some Lars Von Trier of the literary fantasy world: a pompous asshole who knows they are talented and wants everyone to know it as well. Rather, since Stranger was a book that was a love letter to reading and writing – so much of a love letter that its world building invented entire libraries, literary traditions, a phenomenology of experiencing this imaginary literary universe, literary theory, religions built on the written word, and an emergent new literate culture (I especially loved that early passage when Jevick discusses all of the Olondrian writers describing reading and writing). And the book that Jevick is haunted to eventually write leads to the above passage. Even still, it applies to Samatar along with other writers of her calibre.

Hence, like A Stranger In Olondria, the experience of The Winged Histories is the kind of experience you can only get with a book that possesses a story that grips you deeply and a formal quality that, like Angela Carter’s prose, makes every want-to-be writer who cares about form feel a deep anguish that their craft will never be as good. At the beginning it takes some difficulty to get into, because Samatar doesn’t lead you by the hand patting you on the head, but then something clicks. I found myself stuck between the impulse to speed read because I wanted to know what would happen and the desire to slow down and savour each sentence. The impulse to reach the end; the impulse for the book to be eternal.

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Moreover, these books do what very few “world-building” fantasy novels have succeeded in doing: they like high literature and yet still present a world you can tell that Samatar has crafted ahead of time, like a Tolkien or those in his tradition, with pain-staking detail. As if Proust decided, one day, to not write the quintessential modernist novel and spent years crafting an intricate fantasy world that functioned according to its own internal laws – with its own mythologies, religions, artifacts, geographies, cultures, languages, conventions – and then wrote stories about its people with his skill in prose. (What sort of quintessential modernist novel would that be?) Or if Tolkien, after making his world, spent a few years learning how to write like a Conrad but with an attention to the actual political dimensions his mythologies would necessitate.

Because, let’s be honest, you don’t usually get elaborate fantasy world building with the English prose craft of, say, the Joyce of Portrait of an Artist as Young Man or The Dubliners. (Joyce is also, obviously, a stylist par excellence with Ulysses and Finnegan’s Wake [though I haven’t had the energy to labour my way through the latter], but this is a different kind of style than what I mean here.) Okay, maybe Vandermeer and Valente, but their world building still possesses a magic realist dimension that, intersecting with a Borgesian approach, tends to build worlds that are surreal and weird – that aren’t primarily concerned with expressing a concrete fantasy world with the same geeky attention to detail as Samatar’s Olondria. Or maybe China Mieville, though his prose craft has only become more ingenious after his big world building fantasies (although, according to Strange Horizons, his recent book just might be part of the Bas-Lag universe). So when you get someone who writes like a Joyce, a Conrad, a Bolaño, a Carter, etc. and does so within a context that the nerds of “epic fantasy” have claimed as their territory, you’re dealing with something possibly unique.

The thing is, this world building ethos was not as prevalent in Stranger as it is in Winged, and so part of the brilliance of the former is to prove that both books proceed organically from a previously developed and thoroughly thought out fantasy universe. In Stranger there was only a glimpse of this universe, mainly because we were gleaning everything through the perspective of an outsider obsessed with Olondrian literature: Jevick, coming from the margins of Empire, arrives in Olondria only to discover that its literary output is different from its internal state, becomes haunted by a dead woman from another marginal culture, and gets caught up in events he cannot fully understand because he lacks the compass; we receive glimpses of the depth of the world through which he is moving but, like him, they are only glimpses – aside from the literary world he understands so much cannot be known. There was a map, of course, which is a key indication that the author might be a world builder, and there was evidence of a richness lurking beneath the surface of the narrator’s perspective, but it would take another book to reveal how thoroughly and previously constructed and thought-through this fictional universe was.

In Winged, however, we are provided with the entire story of internal politics and historical conjuncture that was partially experienced by Stranger‘s Jevick. The perspectives of four women, one of whom was a tertiary but important character in Jevick’s tale, frame this book, each one revealing a unique insider understanding of the Olondrian fictional universe. Add to this the complex and worked out genealogy, historical fragments that function as non-intrusive info dumps to convey the weight of history, an attention to cultural distinction, a language glossary, concrete explanations of religious history and formation, a fabulous mythology, and everything anyone would require from world building. Unless they just want elves, dwarves, and some pseudo Middle Earth.

It is actually quite depressing, at least in my opinion, that she would invent all of this only to say that it marks the “completion of the project. Never say never, of course, but I do see this book as my farewell to epic fantasy.” That is, when you think of the background geek-like obsession that it would take to compose a fantasy world in which you could write two novels, neither of which reads and behaves like the typical world building fantasy novel (I mean this in a good way, obviously, and I also mean to say that Samatar’s world building is far more transgressive, when it comes to content and form, than any of the recent “grim dark” iterations), it’s tragic to be told that this is all we’ll get. I want to know more about some of the historical background she outlined! Like those vampire rulers who used a war between human nations to intervene and impose a dread hegemony upon the continent that would eventually become Olondria. [quote about them.] Or the story of [writer that the Stone people disliked] who was mentioned both in Stranger and Winged. Or what about the future openings, first presented in Stranger, where the centre of knowledge production shifts to the former margins due to the upheavals between religious sects?

I want to know more! (I want a serialized television series!) But sadly – and necessarily – this desire to know more, and have the story of this universe told and retold over and over and over again is precisely the reason why, unfortunately, Samatar should close this book, giving us “only this leather stamped with roses and shields” so that “the silence comes, like the absence of sound at the end of the world.” Over-serialization is indeed the death of her kind of literary world building.

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One of the difficulties of judging The Winged Histories in comparison to A Stranger in Olondria is that I have no way of knowing whether or not I would have enjoyed the former as much as I did if I hadn’t read the latter. Whereas Stranger follows a single narrative of an outsider coming to grips with the reality of a culture he idolized from afar, Winged is an encyclopedic take on Olondria from several insiders involved in the upheaval the protagonist of Stranger drifted through.

What is most remarkable about Winged, aside from its composition and literary style, is that it skirts the theatre of action. Although it opens with the character Tav and her experience as a “swordmaiden” – a rare woman warrior amongst men – and though the violence of a social upheaval and a separationist movement form the basis of the book, warfare is relegated to the margins. We are intentionally not shown, as in so many of these world-building books, scenes of violence and sword-swinging action with the set pieces of armies of facing armies. Tav’s tale breezes through her experience fighting a border war which is a political distraction, concluding with her desire to fuck up the Olondrian Empire in the favour of familial connections based in subaltern populations. She conspires with her cousin, a secondary character from Stranger to start the rebellion against the emergent theocracy that was the focus of that book, but then her narrative ends. The following parts of Winged focuses on the experiences of other women involved in this unrest, all of whom are significant to the unfolding events but who aren’t at the centre of violence, and so the violent narrative arc of this war becomes an object of reflection that is only experienced as a violent aftermath by the other protagonists. Indeed, it is concluded halfway through the second section, even though it started at the end of the first, and relayed to a woman under house arrest.

Dodging the action of epic war, while building the world in which it takes place, is one of Samatar’s strengths as fantasist. She can narrativize all of those mythic events that determine a concrete world with distinct cultures, mythologies, languages, and organic characters while avoiding the very events that this kind of world-building is meant to valorize: kick-ass battles and quests. While it is indeed the case that Tav, her first protagonist, is a character who possesses the privilege to establish her agency in the midst of war, the fact that she is unique as a woman in a patriarchal world (she had to trick her way into the army based on a forged letter and an appeal to gendered exceptions to the rule) necessarily demands that her narrative be disrupted by those women who will experience war in a different manner. And isn’t it far more interesting, Samatar invites us to consider in the face of the typical epic fantasy fare, that we investigate the ways in which these massive upheavals might be experienced by excluded women?

Following Tav’s narrative is the story of Tialon, daughter of Ivrom the militant priest of the Stone. Here is where Winged positions itself directly with the narrative of Stranger: Tialon, lover of Jevick’s teacher Lunre (once Ivrom’s disciple), who helped Jevick escape when her father, Ivrom, arrested him because of his possession. Now she becomes a primary character and narrates the story of her father and his austere religion. In Stranger this religion, which tried to place itself in the service of rationality while suppressing the irrational, ends up facing the return of the repressed so that Jevick becomes the unwitting tool of the destruction of all that he valued in Olondria (books and libraries) only to experience their regeneration in his islands.

Here, we learn how such a rational religion could become an austere theocracy: this graffitied stone pulled from the wasteland and worshipped as a message from god became the locus of Ivrom’s desire to challenge the supposed infiltration of Olondrian society of decadent intermarriage between Olondrian nobility and non-Olondrian subject populations that produced Tav, her rebel cousin, and her sister. Ivrom, patriarch that he is, is obsessed with outflanking the great aunt of Tav, her sibling, and her cousin who has spent a lifetime trying to take over Olondrian society from within. In doing so, he has turned his daughter into an appendage of a religion he himself has adopted. In the rebellion that Tav helps initiate, Ivrom is executed and Tialon is placed under house arrest, where she attempts to excavate the history of her father’s fanaticism. And as the rebellion is suppressed, and Tialon nears the end of her house arrest, the conflict she feels over her father’s project and his venal patriarchy results in an ambivalence over his execution:

I think he went easily to the noose, slipping earthward like a leaf, and gave the prince one stern, cold look before he died. I think he died so quietly that the crowd was awed for a moment and fell silent, and the prince himself quaked with fear. I think he did. No, I think my father begged for mercy. I think they dragged him from his chair and made him crawl to the foot of the tree. I think he loosed his bowels and his murderers laughed. I think he thought of me and feared for me and thanked the Nameless Gods that I was not there. I think he cursed and threatened them, he swore the gods would smite them. I think his bones were so light he took a long time to die. I think he is still hanging there. I think they cut him down. Let me go… Let me see him. Let me go.

Tialon’s story is followed by the narrative of Seren, Tav’s lover, in the time when the war is over, Seren’s people are liberated from the Olondrian yoke (but at great cost), and Tav has returned to her to abdicate the her life as a warrior. This narrative is told as a fragmented prose poem, a way of making sense of a subaltern culture devastated by war and in the midst of reconstruction. Seren is obsessed with the ways in which a patriarchy imposed by conquest has effected her people, particularly the ways it has caused her family to fall apart: her grandfather died in a previous uprising, her grandmother spent her entire life demanding revenge, and this legacy has always been one that has forced its way into the construction of masculinity at the expense of the women.

Remembrance becomes the remembrance of patriarchy, something which Seren hopes will be broken – especially since she has seen this way of life devastate her family and prevent her from having the kind of lover she desires. A remembrance that reproduces itself in the song and saga of her people:

This is why I say that music should not be for remembrance. We remember too much. We need music to forget. Songs that leave no scars. All these women with scarred faces and the men would say, “She goaded me to kill.” It was the common defense in the case of murder, so conventional, like a song, every case of murder seemed to be the same, even long blood feuds among hundreds of people, always the same, it was always the case of honor and there was always a woman who goaded the man to kill. […] I always felt that this defense was true but also false. True because of the way my grandmother tried to goad my father to make him kill. False because something else was standing behind my grandmother. A vast and terrible logic. Formulaic, like a song. The closed and shining logic of men and women. All of us, singing ourselves to death.

Finally there is the story of Tav’s sister, Siski, that takes place after the rebellion fails – when Siski and her lover/cousin, Tav’s co-conspirator – flee into obscurity. But this is a tale that also excavates the the past of Siski and Tav, the way that family trauma has affected them, and at many points is quite heart-breaking. This was the most difficult part of the book to get through, even more so than Seren’s story, put it was also the most rewarding. All of the disparate strings are tied together in a melancholy way, in the midst of a dread transformation. The world of the fathers, the world of women attempting to assert themselves within this world in a way that is not healthy. I tried so hard to savour the end of the book, to stretch it out for as long as possible.

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There were so many moments in A Winged Histories that caused me to shiver. Like when the matriarch of the family – the same woman that the priest of the Stone, Ivrom, despised and who pushed Tav, Siski, and their cousin to the forefront of Olondrian society – loses everything in the rebellion but is trying desperately to reclaim her hopes for imperial power. She is attempting to write letters to Siski that vacillate between angry directives and apologetic explanations. The letters accumulate like litter, all of them expressing her contradictory emotions, until she writes one about how she was working “on a single painting for half a century. And now imagine a child tears it with a razor.” Then she finally she cries, a single “tear on her knuckle,” and attempts three more missives: “Siski you children are all the same. Siski your duty. Siski your failure”; “Siski the lives of women”; “Dear Siski. Forgive me.”

We are left with a novel that is composed of the voices that are usually suppressed in epic fantasy, voices that simultaneously suppress the normative conventions of this same fantasy. The doors are closed on the fictional universe Samatar initiated in Stranger even though Winged reveals the historical and cultural depth that could be explored in later novels. In this way The Winged Histories is a book as it is defined by Seren:

The is the book of song, which means the book of laughter. In Kestenyi, song, yai, is related to laughter…  But in the che we have another word for book. We call it hawan, lamentation. I don’t know why. Perhaps long ago a woman saw someone weeping over a book. Or perhaps it’s because we call every long poem hawan. Our many hawayn, histories of death and mourning. We, we women, we sing them, but we don’t compose them. It is said that we don’t compose them. We are always too late for the battle, we come behind it, we compose little songs, yaili, we don’t have time. […] So: the book of song. The hawan of kyai, the lamentation of laughter. […] The mourning of laughter, the sob of mirth, the tears of joy, are you finished yet, have you got it all?

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