In Sofia Samatar's World Fantasy Award-winning debut novel A Stranger in Olondria, she introduced an empire redolent with magic and rife with turmoil. Olondria is one of the richest new fantasy settings in recent memory, and Samatar has returned to it in The Winged Histories. Like the book before it, Histories deals with the way language, books, and romance intersect with class, politics, and religion — and it does so in an ornate, dreamlike atmosphere. But Histories is different in a few key ways: its structure, its choice of characters, and the way Samatar deploys her formidable gift for prose. Lush and complex, Stranger was an exceptionally good book; Histories is even better.
In this new book, Olondria is more foreground than backdrop. The intricate, intertwined elements of Samatar's world — from its colonization by monsters to its mystical religious known as the Stone — take center stage, played out through the loves and struggles of its gripping characters. Histories focuses on four of them, all women: Tav, a noblewoman turned bird-riding soldier; Siski, Tav's delicate sister who's been reduced to a refugee; Tialon, a scholar and daughter of a religious leader; and Seren, who loves Tav as much as she loves singing the epic sagas of her homeland. The great civil war that boiled up in Stranger threatens to scatter them all to the winds of history — so they're attempting to pass along their stories.
Each of the protagonists commands an entire quarter of the novel, with the two sisters, Tav and Siski, bookending it. Woven ornately together, their stories also overlap with Stranger; a few characters are familiar, although they're fleshed out and given new perspectives. As involved as it is, Histories is far more direct and readable; Samatar streamlines and economizes the wordier tendencies of Stranger, and it makes for a soft-spoken yet spellbinding tale.
Like its predecessor, though, Histories is also a poignant, pensive book. "You will have noticed that all the great songs are sad," Seren muses before realizing that in Olondria, a woman writing her own new songs — ones that are "fresh, light, like a breath" — can be an act as revolutionary as any uprising. Samatar herself has done the same with Histories, giving it an effortless grace that the heavier Stranger lacked. That said, it's no less tragic — as the book's four threads dovetail, the characters' desperate efforts to hold onto their hearts, minds, bodies, and words becomes a struggle against the tide of Olondria's civilization itself.
Throughout it all, Samatar ponders weighty questions. "What is the difference between a king and a monster?" Tialon asks; "What is music?" wonders Seren. But Histories isn't a book about easy answers, any more than it's driven by plot. It's circuitous and hypnotic, told through flashbacks, meditations, and stories within stories. Tialon pores over a history book written by her aunt; Seren sifts through the traditional songs she sings. Rather than being distractions, these nested texts ring with lyricism.
At the same time, they underscore one of Samatar's profound themes: how words make us, every bit as much as we make them. At one point Seren, waxing philosophical about the distinction between sorcery and literacy in Olondia, says that writing is "like riding a horse to go somewhere instead of walking. You go to the same place, but you can carry more." Accordingly, Samatar carries a great deal with her in the pages of The Winged Histories: beauty, wonder, and a soaring paean to the power of story.
Jason Heller is a senior writer at The A.V. Club, a Hugo Award-winning editor and author of the novel Taft 2012.