Title: The Winged Histories
Author: Sofia Samatar
Publisher: Small Beer Press
Rating: 5 out of 5 total
How I got this book: eBook purchased from Weightless Books
What does history mean? Whose stories get written down and treated as the truth? Most importantly, how do we know what the truth actually is? Is a usurper to the throne doing so out of a desire for power, or to topple a corrupt regime? And what if the reason for waging a war is neither of those things?
Questions about power and the purpose of stories were central to Sofia Samatar’s debut novel A Stranger in Olondria, which won the World Fantasy Award. I read it way back in 2014 and swooned over it. Almost everything about Olondria displayed deliberation and care — the prose, the worldbuilding, the themes, and the characterization.
I was expecting something similar in The Winged Histories, Samatar’s follow-up novel set in the same world. It shares certain elements with its predecessor, like its gorgeous, crystalline prose, as well as its focus on the power of narrative as a political force. However, it blindsided me with this particular truth: The Winged Histories is not a story about war and the crumbling of empire — it’s a story about love. And this truth is fully revealed only during the precisely-calibrated pages of the final few chapters.
But let me back up. Enough with this talk of love and empire and truth. What this book actually about?
The Winged Histories is split into four sections, each with a different first-person narrator telling the reader their perspective on the collapse of the Olondrian empire due to war, colonial expansion, and religious upheaval.
Tavis is a soldier, the niece of the current king of Olondria, and the granddaughter of a traitor. Hoping to restore independence to her ancestral homeland of Kestenya and atone for her grandfather’s sins, she and her cousin Andasya, the heir to the throne, instigate a war for Kestenya’s independence. In her attempts to do so, she travels to Kestenya to spend time with the nomadic herders there, and falls in love with Seren, a gifted singer.
Tialon is the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, and now the high priestess after her father Ivrom’s death. Ivrom was an ambitious man who managed to make great strides in supplanting Olondria’s ancient fertility-based religion with a new, austere one heavily influenced by his own thinking. His growing power over the king spurred Prince Andasya to free Kestenya from his influence and to usurp the throne. Tialon is held captive in the palace during the aftermath of Andasya’s successful coup, and reckons with how her father forced her to live a small, caged, miserable life.
Seren is a poet and nomad who reflects on the role her lover, Tavis, played in Kestenya’s war for independence. She thinks about the ironies of gendered roles within Kestenyi culture. Women like her are singers, but their songs focus on the vendettas and deaths of Kestenyi men.
Finally, there is Siski. Initially introduced as Tavis’s docile sister who pretends to be a social butterfly at court, she uses a veneer of innocence and superficiality to conceal the truth: Andasya didn’t wage war and overthrow his father to gain power or restore a faltering religion. He did it for reasons that are best left to the reader to discover.
When Siski learns the terrible secret that Andasya carries, she runs from him in fear, oblivious that doing so makes the rest of her family — and onlookers like the Priest of the Stone — assume an entirely different (and more salacious) reason for her actions. And this wrong interpretation is one that the reader is encouraged to believe until nearly the end of the book, until Siski’s perspective shows the secret history the rest of the world doesn’t see.
This lesson about mistaken assumptions is one that is core to the ethos of The Winged Histories. Like its predecessor, this book is tricky and evaded my expectations. In Olondria, I was expecting fantasy battles and political intrigue, but instead got a moving story about the power of words and what it means to create a legacy. In Histories, I was expecting similar deconstruction of the value of literature, but instead I got a series of tightly-controlled memoirs where war happens just beyond the scope of the text. At the heart of it all, I found an achingly beautiful and sad story about young lovers and the slow, tortured crumbling of an ambitious family.
Samatar’s prose is spare and elegant, and one that rewards reading between the lines. It often forsakes being prose entirely and instead turns to poetry, such as when Seren sings the songs of her homeland. At other times, the reader is exposed to excerpts from historical works written about Olondria, or to letters written by secondary characters.
The ultimate effect is that the reader knows more about the fall of Olondria, and about how Andasya’s actions ruin his family, than the family members do themselves. And thus, the reader is in on the most important secrets of this world in a way that the characters aren’t.