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The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar
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3 - 3.5 stars

My gut feeling is that this book probably deserves a higher rating than what I’m giving it right now, but I have to admit that my mind started wandering at about the 3/4 mark which somewhat tempered my overall enjoyment of the story, and I also think that I might have benefited from reading A Stranger in Olondria again before coming to this 'sequel'. I use the word in single quotes because I wouldn’t quite call this a direct sequel to Samatar’s previous novel, but it certainly has much to do with it in both content and theme, though Jevick, the hero of the first book, is only mentioned obliquely once in the text and the story in this book could perhaps be considered ‘bigger’ in that it deals not only with the machinations for power of one of the leading families of the Olondrian empire, but also with both a war and rebellion that shake the status quo. Despite these ‘big events’, however, don’t think that this is anything like a standard epic fantasy centring on war and intrigue, its focus is fundamentally a personal one which zeroes in on the leading family, and more specifically its disaffected younger members who are tired of being used as pawns in the political manoeuvering of their elders. In many ways it is both a family saga and a bildungsroman as much as (or perhaps even more than) it is a tale of war and intrigue. Hmmm, I am starting to wonder if this sprawling nature and somewhat chimerical make-up is perhaps one of the elements that sometimes pushed me away from the story?

The book itself is divided into four main segments, each centring on the life and trials of a different individual. ‘The History of the Sword’ is narrated by Tav, a daughter of the leading noble house of Olondria who has run away to become a swordmaiden/soldier in the ongoing war against another nation (the Brogyars) in an attempt to seize control over her own destiny and wield the kind of power her society generally does not afford to women. In the course of her military career Tav comes to see the futility of this war which seems to serve no purpose other than to cement the positions of those in power. In addition her eyes are opened to many of the injustices visited upon the people of Olondria, and especially her home province of Kestenya, by her own family and their political cronies. Ultimately Tav decides to take matters into her own hands and foment rebellion against these powers that be. ‘The History of the Stone’ switches gears and is where we come closest (in content anyway) to ‘Stranger’. It is the story of Tialon, the lonely daughter of the ascendant Priest of the Stone (both minor characters from ‘Stranger’) who struggles to find love in the midst of loneliness and purpose in a life that is arid and powerless. ‘The History of Music’ is the story of Seren, a poetess of the nomadic feredhai people and Tav’s lover. She provides something of an outsider’s view to the obsessions and tribulations that both haunt and drive Tav. ‘The History of Flight’ takes us back to the beginning in some ways as we get to see some of the same scenes and events recounted earlier from a different point of view. In this case we hear the story of her family from Siski, Tav’s sister, upon whose beauty and fecklessness the family has pinned all of their hopes of final ascendancy and ultimate political power. While she is unable to rebel in the straightforward manner of her sister, Siski proves to be more than a biddable puppet and travels her own path of rebellion that leads her to heartbreak and suffering.

Aside from the protagonists of each of the main sections of the book two other characters loom large in all of the tales: one is the powerful matriarch Mardith, whose Machiavellian attempts to gain her family pre-eminence in Olondria begin to crumble in the face of the opposition presented by her unhappy nieces and nephew; the other is one whom we see only from the outside: the figure of Tav and Siski’s cousin, the doomed heir-apparent Dasya. While his importance to the lives of each of his cousins is central he is certainly seen by them in very different ways. To one sister he is a figure of hope, but also a tool that can be used to foment rebellion and right the perceived wrongs of the previous generation; to the other he is a tragic love whose dark secret will both break and bind their undying connection to each other.

As is apparent this is primarily a book about the lives of women and the trials and tribulations they face in a world that is controlled (on the surface at least) by men. In each story we see the main female protagonist either breaking free from, or living within the constraints placed upon them by their male dominated society. Tav is perhaps the most obvious example of open rebellion to her lot as a ‘soft, gentle female’ in her espousal of the traditionally male role of soldier and its inherent reliance on violence to get its way. It is interesting to contrast her with the matriarch of the family, her Aunt Mardith, a woman who fully embraces the traditional roles of a female in her society, but whose strong will and wily intellect allow her to be the true power of the dynasty whom even the male members of her family fear. Seren is also something of a rebel amongst her people through her fierce desire to remain free and make her own choices, though she never fully rejects the ways her people. Instead she seems to use her acts of rebellion as opportunities to transmute the hidebound opinions and traditions of her people. While she never fully embraces any of the preconceptions her people have for their women, she also never seems to fully reject their ways either. It is an interesting balancing act.

Tialon and Siski, on the other hand, are women who seem to live more as victims of the expectations of their family and society than as object examples of rebellion. Tialon spends the majority of her life locked away in Velvalinhu, the dwelling of the Olondrian kings, and thus the place where her power hungry father, Ivrom the Priest of the Stone, has set up residence in his attempts to control the king and his family through his new religion. Her life is little more than a tiring repetition of emptiness, helplessness, and endless ritual as her father continually ignores her every attempt at connecting with him and she can do little more than serve as an unwanted handmaiden, watching as her world begins to dissolve around her in the face of the rebellion against her father and his religion that gathers strength with each passing day. Siski is perhaps the most tragic figure in the novel. Initially a lover of the ease and enjoyment which her family’s position affords her, she soon becomes disaffected when she learns of the plans that her overbearing Aunt Mardith has for her and her beloved cousin Dasya, and nearly breaks when in addition to this Dasya reveals to her a horrifying secret that she must bear alone. Her act of rebellion comes as a literal escape when she runs away from her family and fully embraces the life of a libertine, leading on a string of lovers in an endless round of pleasure seeking and parties until she ultimately finds herself bereft of all friends and resources and decides to ultimately face the terrifying destiny from which she had so ineffectually tried to flee.

There were times when I was reminded of Gene Wolfe while reading this book, especially in the first tale which at times felt disconnected and almost arbitrary as I was presented with many events the significance of which I couldn’t yet see or for which I had little or no context until after the tale was fully told (or the same events were seen later from a different perspective). Only then did the picture start to come together as a whole, though even so I would probably benefit from reading it over again with this new light now available to me. I was also somewhat reminded of John Crowley's The Deep, perhaps due to the focus on the internecine struggles for power of various interconnected noble families that was at the core of the story, but which never overshadowed the fact that it was the personal stories and lives they lived as unique and interesting individuals that was of central importance.

Ultimately I think I can only re-state what I said at the beginning: I think this book probably deserves a higher rating and I fully expect it to fare better on a re-read now that I have more context for the details and events that Samatar doles out in each tale. Unsurprisingly with Samatar the language and images are often beautiful and striking and while I was occasionally stalled in some parts of the book it is certainly well worth the time and effort it demands of its readers.
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Reading Progress

November 10, 2015 – Shelved
November 10, 2015 – Shelved as: to-read
March 24, 2016 – Started Reading
March 24, 2016 – Shelved as: fantasy
March 29, 2016 –
page 57
April 1, 2016 –
page 100
April 6, 2016 –
page 158
April 11, 2016 –
page 201
April 15, 2016 –
page 235
April 25, 2016 –
page 281
April 28, 2016 – Finished Reading

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