The Winged Histories by Sofia Samatar

The Winged Histories is a book I absolutely adored. It tells of four women who are caught up in a civil war brewing in the country Olondria. The four are a soldier plotting rebellion, a priestess of an oppressive religion, a singer from a nomad culture, and a noblewoman escaping her family’s intrigue. They all experience the war very differently and the relationships between them also varies: family, enemies, lovers, or strangers. The Winged Histories is told from each of their perspectives in turn, and is thus divided into four sections, each written in a distinct style.

This is a book about women stories. Not just because all of the main characters are female, but also because their struggles echo women’s struggles throughout history and today. In the broad sense, The Winged Histories is about an empire splitting apart at the seams: there’s tension between followers of the old religion and the new, one of the territories wants to regain independence, and the crown prince is thinking of taking the throne early. Only one of the women takes a very active role in these conflicts. For all, the focus is on their personal reactions to society’s expectations and their complex interpersonal relationships. Events of the present day are deftly interwoven with their memories of past conversations, critiques of cultural traditions, discussions of identity, or whatever else they find important to impart upon us at the time.

The book is thus intricately constructed, both in terms of prose and in terms of themes (and in terms of background political maneuverings that you have to put together and possibly consult the generously provided family tree for). There is a lot packed into its 330 pages. I’m sure others will get something different out of it depending on their own experiences and I’m already looking forward to rereading it to see what changes. For now, I’ll stick to the two things that stayed with me the most.

So, for one, the writing is genuinely gorgeous. The prose is very strongly lyrical, particularly the singer’s section, which is appropriately titled The History of Music and sometimes resembles blank verse. It’s dense, a book that encourages pausing for a bit, both to digest and to savour what is written. The frequent time jumps do sometimes make following what is going on a little difficult. I found that if my attention wandered for just a sentence, I was suddenly ten years in the past and completely lost. But the book rewards reading slowly. I started dog-earing pages with passages I loved partway through. Here’s one of the first ones I marked:

“This field is for you,” she told me once, “I’ll never take it back.” But she did take it back. The day I left she stood apart, near the artusa, while the others kissed me and patted my shoulders and wished me luck on the road. Her sunburned arms crossed and her gaze trained on the mountains. No white cloak today, no sign of grief. She was taking it back. Her hair and her voice and her breath and the scar where she had been bitten by a wild dog. “I yelled like fever,” she told me. She was taking it all back. I wanted to be the first to turn away. I lost.

The other thing that I keep thinking about is the book’s deconstruction of the Girl Who Wants To Fight trope. You know – she runs away from home, she joins X where there’s only men, she proves herself As Good As The Boys. It’s a familiar trope to anybody who grew up devouring Tamora Pierce’s books. The book opens with a girl (the future soldier) having run off to the military academy and refusing her aunt’s attempts to take her back home. I felt myself on solid ground: awesome, the next few chapters are gonna be about her proving her worth, confronting the boys’ prejudices, etc. Yeah, no. Two pages later it’s after her graduation already; the army’s caught up in senseless border skirmishes, forcing villagers to hand over their last food to avoid starvation themselves. It’s a harsh critique of the idea that women warriors are always a score for equality – not when they’re working so hard to be part of an empire’s army. I found it an excellent slap in the face to start us off.

Honestly, I could go on and on. There’s so much I haven’t touched on: the not-argument between soldier and singer on how (in)authentic identity construction can be, the bitter rumination on how blame gets assigned, the idea of writing oneself into and out of the historical narrative, the conflict between love and independence, the way love between two women is culturally treated as something to “grow out of”, the bias or impartiality of history (and which one’s better), and, oh yeah, it’s not fully clear ’till the end if the mythical monsters from lore are what they seem to be – or if they even exist…

This was one of my favourite reads of 2017 and it’s highly recommended. Especially recommended for:

  • People who are fans of N.K. Jemisin’s work (especially her take on social issues) and want a book that comes with high praise by her
  • People who want to read more female-centric fantasy
  • People who focus a lot on the prose and like authors like Guy Gavriel Kay, Catherynne M. Valente, Ellen Kushner
  • People who enjoy epic fantasy but want something new
  • People who love Tamora Pierce and want to see a more nuanced take on the Action Girl trope
  • People searching for a well-written lesbian romance (and I guess there’s a het couple too)

 

 

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