Wednesday, October 24, 2018

Birthday Review: Stories of Sofia Samatar

Birthday Review: Stories of Sofia Samatar

Today is Sofia Samatar's birthday, and again I've assembled a collection of my reviews of her stories. This isn't as long as some of my other similar posts, simply because Samatar hasn't been publishing as long. But she's a major major writer, one of my very favorites already. I haven't written about her novels, A Stranger in Olondria and The Winged Histories, but I should add that I recommend them both very highly. The second novel didn't seem to get quite as much attention as the first, but it's quite remarkable too, and in particular it closes very strongly.

(Locus, October 2012)

Clarkesworld's August issue features a couple of stories by writers I like a lot, and one by a writer new to me. So naturally the story by the unfamiliar writer, Sofia Samatar, worked best! "Honey Bear" tells of a family trip to the sea, a couple and their one child, but we slowly realize that the child isn't quite a regular human child, and that indeed the human world isn't normal at all any more. The mother narrates, desperately hoping her child, whom she loves, will remember this day, while the father is worried for hard to understand reasons. The problem is the Fair Folk, who seem to rule the Earth now (it's not clear if they are a version of fairies, or if they are aliens called that because of some resemblance). I won't say what's going on (though most readers will guess) -- because the slow reveal, and the mother's desperate, hopeless, love for her child, work together beautifully.

(Locus, April 2014)

The other original SF story in the March Lightspeed is "How to Get back to the Forest", by Sofia Samatar, who has quite rapidly become a major voice in SF/F, with one marvelous novels and several short stories (including the new Nebula nominee "Selkie Stories are for Losers") that are not only outstanding but display a striking range of themes and concerns. This latest is a scary story of a near future in which children are taken away from their parents to be raised (indoctrinated) in camps. The narrator's friend Cee rebels, insisting that she can expel the tracking bug inside her, and pulling the narrator into some of her schemes. In the end it's heartbreaking, and convincing, and  intriguing in its continuing reveal of the strange dark future it portrays.

(Locus, January 2017)

Perhaps the most overt "reimagination" in The Starlit Wood is Sofia Samatar’s "The Tale of Mahliya and Mauhub and the White-Footed Gazelle", which is a look at an Arabic tale of at least a millennium ago, translated into English for the first time only last year. Samatar’s story literally "deconstructs" is, takes it apart, looks at each of the characters -- and then cunningly reassembles it, in front of the reader, in the context of the present. It is on the one hand clever -- but still it remains a story, and a moving story.

(Locus, March 2018)

I continue to catch up on some 2017 stuff I missed. For example, Sofia Samatar’s collection Tender: Stories. Truly this is one of the best collections I’ve seen in some time. This exceptional debut collection includes two new stories, "An Account of the Land of Witches", and "Fallow". Both are remarkable. "Fallow" has perhaps got more notice. It’s clearly one of the best novellas of the year. It’s set on a planet colonized by what seem to be perhaps an Amish sect, fleeing an increasingly ruined Earth. They scratch out a difficult living in what seems maybe a domed colony -- with something called the Castle nearby (is that the spaceship they came on? Part of the appeal of the story is that we are told relatively little.) The story is told by a woman who has written stories before, only to see them rejected (literally, as a waste of paper) -- now she will tell the truth about her life so far -- or, really, about three people who to some degree rebelled against that society: her teacher, Miss Snowfall; a man named Brother Lookout, a "Young Evangelist" who had become involved with a visiting "Earthman"; and finally her sister Temar, who had gone to work at the Castle. Samatar invests all this with mystery, with hints of the state of the ruined Earth (and their hopes to return), with slant looks at the details of the religion followed in this colony, with precise and affecting characterization -- it’s a sad but beautiful and not quite hopeless story.

"An Account of the Land of Witches" is quite as good in a very different way. It opens with a lyrical narrative by Arta, a slave who is taken by her master (a merchant) to the Land of Witches, where she learns their magic -- or Dream Science -- which involves language and the manipulation of time. This is absolutely lovely writing, and the magical system is beautiful. There follows -- ever in different well realized voices -- a "refutation" of Arta’s account by her angry master; and then a desperate section told by a Sudanese woman trapped back home by visa problems (and local strife) as she tries to research the fragments that make up Arta’s account and her master’s refutation for her degree from a US university; then a lexicon of the witches’ magical language, and then a strange almost mystical account of a journey in search of the Land. This is really striking, original, and, like "Fallow", mysterious.

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