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“The Winged Histories” by Sofia Samatar

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Sofia Samatar’s novels A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories are somewhat unconventional in that they’re set in the same world but not direct sequels or prequels to each other. Sisters Tavis and Siski, along with their cousin Andasya, are scions of a noble family in the Empire of Olondria. Olondria absorbed their home province of Kestenya long ago, and it’s still seen as something of a backwater. Some of the Kestenyi long for independence, and the three relatives get caught up in their machinations, violent and otherwise.

The Olondrian novels not technically being a series isn’t the only way in which they’re unconventional, at least not with respect to The Winged Histories. This is a book about a revolution, and yet we see very little of that revolution directly. The few battle scenes we see are fights between small squads, and they aren’t even part of the revolution. When the rebels attack the capital city, our POV character spends most of the time locked in her room, gleaning information from what she can see looking out her window and what her guard’s willing to tell her. Samatar considers the reasons for the war and the aftermath of it to be more important than the war itself. While I enjoyed this because it’s so different from the standard narrative, some readers may find it unsatisfying.

Of course, The Winged Histories isn’t just a war story; it’s a fantasy novel. Here, too, Samatar’s authorial priorities are different from what one might expect. Legends of gods and magic and mythical creatures pop up throughout the story, but it’s not until the very end that anything which couldn’t plausibly exist in the real world shows itself. Samatar is more concerned with the human dynamics of the situation that with the magic itself. Again, this is something that worked for me but might not for other readers. When the revelation at the end comes, it’s poignant specifically because of all the buildup that’s happened. It forces the reader to re-evaluate and reinterpret the events and dialogue that have come before. And the physical aspects of the magic aren’t as important as what the magic means for the characters’ relationship to each other, to the rest of their family, and to their homeland.

In terms of craft, The Winged Histories is absolutely beautiful. The language is dense and poetic. This isn’t a book you can breeze through, at least not without missing a lot. It took me as long to read as a book 200 pages longer, because I was savoring the language and tying together threads from previous sections of the narrative. Samatar goes through a lot of work to make the setting feel real, particularly through the use of small details. Overall, this was an engrossing read. I have Samatar’s short story collection Tender on my bookshelf, and I’m interested to see how her writing style plays out in a shorter format.

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