Monday, September 12, 2016

Chicago Nerds- The Winged Histories

For the August meeting of the Chicago Nerd Social Club, we discussed Sofia Samatar's "The Winged Histories"(2016), the companion to her 2013 "A Stranger in Olondria".

The novel is somewhat difficult to summarize--it's a few different stories of women on various sides of a complicated conflict: a civil war with tangled roots in ethnic and religious history. Also, there are vampires (don't read it for the vampires).

Also, like "Stranger", it's just astonishingly, chest-grabbingly good. On the back of my childhood copies of The Lord of the Rings was that Lewis blurb--"here are beauties blah blah", and I think of that when reading the Olondrian novels. Possible spoilers below!

First thing we cleared out of the way was this novel's relation to "Stranger": not so much a sequel as what the cool kids are calling a "sidequel" these days. A companion, not a continuation--the events of Winged Histories extend both before and after Stranger's, and since the various narrators of WH are not strangers to the nation of Olondria, we get a very different and more in-depth look at it.

Once again, we note a fantasy novel where one really needs to grasp the family tree of the main players--fortunately, that's reasonably straightforward here. There are a lot of characters, but it doesn't quite get into Goblin Emperor-level issues.

Lots of discussion of the (very little) supernatural here--much as the magic in Stranger is limited to an angel, here it's limited to the Drevedi, the winged vampires. It's tempting to say that the Winged Histories isn't about the supernatural elements--so much of why it works is rooted in realism, in sensory-rich lived detail, in plausibly-sketched societies and the characters they produce--but we kept circling the Drevedi. There's something to that inclusion that feels important.

We noted and liked the stylistic differences between the tales: Seren's which is more of a prose poem, the distinctly Russian feel of Siski's--the high society scenes as well as the impoverished end.

We discussed the title for a while, and the various kinds of flight, metaphorical and otherwise, throughout the novel.

A good long discussion of the religious conflict between the followers of the Stone and the Cult of Avalei, noting that there are other and older traditions marginalized here, echoes of Rome. There's some very cool ambivalence about them both--the Stone the religion of writing, remembering, order, but also oppressive, anti-body, perhaps misogynistic, while Avalei is sex-positive, more passionate, more alive and also more of the people--but also dark, destructive. The Drevedi come from Avalei. It's a remarkably drawn binary, one that captures or evokes a lot of the history of religious conflict (most particularly, perhaps, the three main Abrahamic religions and the traditions they have supplanted or conflicted with) without yet being anything like a simple allegory or caricature.

(By the way, you can read more commentary on/from Samatar from our coverage of this year's Wiscon, where she was guest of honor.)

Intriguingly (for me), a few folks picked up on smell as something Samatar does very well--it's a sense most SF/F writers, perhaps most writers generally overlook, but it's constantly present in Samatar's writing, and makes her scenes that much more vivid, that much more like real memories. I say intriguing for me, because it was one of the things that struck me about "A Stranger in Olondria" (and wrote up in the notes for the Think Galactic discussion).

The sense of place and character, the tone, the settings, the way emotion is drawn--one of the things we praised about this book is how incredibly real it seems, at a human level. Usually when we, we SF/F fans, talk about realism, we're talking about world-building, about motivation, that kind of thing. This gets that right, but far more importantly the characters have a reality to them that one rarely finds in fiction at all, and that's pretty astonishing.

Great book, great discussion. CNSC's next selection is "The Atrocity Archives" by Charles Stross, and oh my goodness that meeting's today! At 6:30pm @ Filter Cafe! Catching up on these posts, I swear. As always, keep up with the Chicago Nerds on their website & Facebook group for all kinds of fun.

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