In a story, reminiscent of CS Lewis’ ’till we have faces’, a clan leader hires a foreign tutor to teach his son about the cultured ways of the main land. From that day, the young heir is set on a journey that forces him to face unpleasant truths, have disquieting experiences, learn about his world, and grow into a sadder, but wiser, ruler.
At first glance, this may sound familiar Epic Fantasy/Sword and Sorcery territory. And, this is, seemingly, confirmed by the presence of the now rather stereotypical map at the beginning of the book. But, the book’s surface appearance forms a skeleton on which to hang a complex and interesting work. This work uses a familiar structure to support an exploration of; binary, language, boundaries, borders, and mirrors/twins.
As Gary. K Wolfe has argued on the Coode Street podcast, the map plays an important role in a book that plays with geographic, cultural and genre borders. The book lies upon the borders between fantasy, magic realism and literary fiction; breaking down the binary structures that keep these spaces apart, and creating a space in which the; author, characters and the reader may play. This play, of form, may be seen in the very formatting of the book. The UK cover shows a young man gazing into a mediterranean/Eastern landscape. The cover could easily be placed on a mainstream, literary title. Yet, that map hints at the books fantasy roo(u)t(e)s. The work does come in the form of traditional quest narrative which sees our main character; start out seeking adventure, then finding it, fleeing it, before finding resolution for himself and those around him. However, other than a ghost, (which could be seen as a subconscious motivating delusion affecting the main character) there is a marked absence of magic, or magical creatures, within this work. There’s not a Goblin, Elf, or Hobbit to be seen in Samatar’s world.
This is also a book of Mirrors/oppositional twins. Firstly, we have two fathers, his biological parent and his tutor who act as opposites. The father is a merchant, practical man while his tutor is a man who lives by his brain; a man of books and words. His tutor, also, allows us to look at the dichotomies of master /servant; outsider/insider. The tutor is a slave but has; power,and influence. The ‘logical tutor also acts as oppositional double to, religious, inhabitants of the island.
The locations in this story also act as contrasting doubles, or indeed trebles; firstly, his home island and Olondrian. The first being a small, provisional, mercantile, island; while the second is a cultured, urban setting. We can see that both settings have an effect on Jervis. Once we get to Olondria, we get another double relationship; in the groups which he encounters. Both groups priorities differing things. The first, prioritises the written word while the second prioritises spoken, oral culture.
Samatar uses doubles in her world to allow us to glimpse how these operate within society. On top of this trend, this is a really enjoyable story. It has a engrossing world filled with fascinating characters and ideas.