I am always nervous writing a review of a book that touches me deeply, as I feel my writing is insufficient to convey that deeper experience with the story. I type this before typing that, of all the things I expected A Stranger in Olondria to be from its title and a too-short descriptive blurb (not the one on the back cover), I did not expect it to be a well-told literary epic telling the tale of a man’s childhood, his journey into the depth of Olondria, and his entanglement in a struggle between two ideologies and cultures, a rift that threatens to rip the kingdom apart.
A Stranger in Olondria is amazingly well written, with vivid descriptions of a young man discovering a foreign world, with a winding plot that unfolds with no shortage of foreshadowing and connections to the past. The most important of these connections occurs as a result of his bond with the ghost mentioned on the back cover. Most importantly to me, the story is a poignant tale of life, with plenty of travel and adventure, but told honestly, rather than dramatically, with no edges blunted. Jevick of Tyom shares his childhood memories, the joy and pain of life, both with and without the sting of adult awareness, and the varied experiences he falls into, from imprisonment, to conspiracy, to living alone with only the company of a ghost.
The story is slow paced, and takes quite a while to reach the heart of the narrative, which may be engaging or tiring, depending on your persuasion. I found it worked very well with the descriptive depth of the novel, and the sheer number of thematic threads woven together. I also found Jevick’s interest in reading, writing, and storytelling fascinating, as these topics are deep in the soul of the story itself, and that meta-commentary resulted in a few moments of genuine wonder. I really enjoyed the prevalence of culture and to a lesser extent ideologies in driving the plot, with the differences in place and dynamics resulting in power struggles with wide-ranging effects. The two viewpoints were generally depicted more than explained, and such explanations usually fit the scene, never feeling forced or like a lecture to the reader. In fact, nothing in the novel felt forced to me: everything had its place and its time.