The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

The Winged Histories is the companion novel to A Stranger in Olondria by the same author, but it is not necessary to read that before reading this book. However, be warned (and I speak from experience), you may love The Winged Histories so much that you’ll want to go back and read A Stranger in Olondria next!

thewingedhistoriesThe swordmaiden will discover the secrets of men. She will discover that men at war are not as men at peace. She will discover a unforeseen comradeship. Take care: this comradeship is a Dueman shield. It does not extend all the way to the ground.
The swordmaiden will discover that her forebears are few. There was Maris, and there was Galeron of Nain, and there was the False Countess of Kestenya.
The swordmaiden will hear rumours of others, but she will not find them.
Her greatest battle will be waged against oblivion.

Four women tell their history from both sides of a brutal rebellion. Tav, a soldier, wants freedom for her country of Kestenya, but she’s from a royal family and has little in common with the nomadic people who live on the plains. Tialon is the last priestess of a new religion, left bereft on the death of her father. Seren, a poet, wants love but does not want to get married. And Siski, a princess and socialite, is hiding a devastating secret. All four of them write their stories, but history will not remember all of their voices.

This book is enormous — it’s not that it’s particularly long, but the worldbuilding has that elusive magical quality that makes you believe that the universe extends a long way past the limits of the novel. Each woman’s text is juxtaposed with an excerpt of an ‘official’ written history, and there are snippets of songs, poems, local history, family trees and even stone carvings, that combine to make such a rich tapestry — it even reminded me of Kalpa Imperial, whose scope is so large it’s almost impossible to conceive. The worldbuilding is so extensive, that when the twist came it took me totally by surprise, because so much was built up in advance that it could have come from anywhere. But in general, the plot unfolds slowly and gently, seen only through the eyes of these women, and they don’t all tell their stories in a linear way.

This book grapples with some big ideas. It’s about history, and whose versions of events are remembered, and where the line falls between history and myth. It’s also about gender, as all four women struggle with the realities of being women in the society they live in, but in different ways. There’s a searching look at religion and devotion through the character of Tialon, I appreciated that the book never mocks her for her beliefs, even as she struggles to figure out what it means to her. There’s also a very minor subplot about the appropriation of other cultures’ religions for political reasons that I found fascinating.

Back in April I wrote here about the tomboy princess trope, and this book has the best subversion of this trope that I’ve ever encountered. Tav is the archetypal tomboy princess, and yet her story is not triumphant. Her rebellion has consequences, she’s not in touch with the people she’s trying to free at all, and although she sees her more beautiful sister as vapid, we get to hear her side of the story later.

The women write their stories as if their readers are fully aware of their situation already (a level of clever attention to detail that I appreciated), so there is very little explanation and the reader is expected to pick up a lot about the world from the context. The writing can be dense to the point of obscurity — an example description: ‘And merry, glittering kebma parties were held in this great dark room, the ladies wearing fronds of the sabior plant in their hair … a lifelong bachelor, he was devoted to his bildiri hunting master, and died with him in an avalanche in the Tavroun’. None of this is explained (there’s a glossary at the end, but I only discovered this when I’d finished!), but once you’ve committed to going with it, this style has the mesmerising effect of drawing you ever further into the world, and once I finished the book I was somewhat disoriented and had to forcibly drag myself back into reality. I can think of no higher praise!

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