I don’t run across much literary fiction when perusing the SF/F aisles. There’s something about genre fiction that tends to attract simpler writing styles with punchy plots. And that’s not a bad thing: I like punchy plots and engaging writing.
But sometimes it’s nice to have something a little meatier too. And if that meatier book finds itself in a genre where it has a bunch of conventions to play with, that’s all the better.
This book satisfies the desire for literary fiction. And it has some fantasy elements — it exists in a made-up world with made-up geography and made-up languages and customs and there’s a hint of magic — but it’s only barely a fantasy book. The magic is mostly spiritualism and is enough to let it appear on SF award lists, but it should appeal to folks who don’t necessarily like ogres and trolls and wizards.
In place of a strong plot, it is instead a love letter to books and the written word with a simple plot placed around that. The main character does things (though, mostly, is carried along as things happen to him) but the book isn’t really about that. Instead, the book is really about the stories and songs that he hears as he moves through the world.
The language is, in places, beautiful. But that’s also where I find fault with the book: often, the writing feels like it’s trying to hard and goes over the line into the hard-to-understand.
I think this is a good book. I think it’s an important book. I think SF needs more books like this alongside the Old Man’s Wars and Wheel of Times. I hope that Sofia Samatar writes more genre books because I’d like to read them.