This is easily the best fantasy novel I’ve read since The Traitor Baru Cormorant.
It shares many of that novel’s concerns- the protagonists include queer women of color, the plot revolves around an effort to break up an empire, and it will wreck you emotionally. But where the earlier book deals with a 19th-20th century style overseas empire, a violent rupture, The Winged Histories deals with a land empire, with the kind of foundational violence countries try their best to bury and forget. It’s also a gentler, more hopeful book, playing with tragedy without consummating it.
Structurally, Samatar’s novel is composed of three first-person narratives, one after the other, followed by a third person narrative. We know the circumstances of the composition of the first three narratives. The implication is that the fourth character’s tale is never recorded, that that point of view is lost to history. It contains the key which, unknown to the other three pov characters, unlocks many of the mysteries of their narratives. A powerful statement about what is and isn’t remembered.
I don’t want to spoil the ending of this book; it’s too powerful. I will say that some things come too easily– privileged outsider Tav integrates into a marginalized nomadic group and finds a lover, Tav’s country gains the independence she seeks for it even as her war plans crumble on other fronts. But there are always consequences shown on the page, nonetheless.
The book contains both f/f and f/m romances involving pov characters– I know that will recommend it to some of my readers. It’s a very character-driven book; I was left with a lot of unanswered questions at the end and yet felt that each of the characters had achieved a satisfactory resolution. It’s a sequel to A Stranger in Olondria, but I hadn’t read that book, which focuses on different characters, and didn’t feel lost at all.
The writing is lovely, even when it talks about ugly things. That’s a trick I’d like to learn, how to include crude and bodily realities without breaking the aesthetic spell.
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