Tag Archives: Sofia Samatar

On Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s Tone


What I mean is, I’m writing on Sofia Samatar and Kate Zambreno’s book Tone, not their, y’know, tone. Although that’s interesting, too. This is imaginative criticism, not dryly analytical but poetic. Books about art can also be art.

Cover of Tone

Tone, as a literary concept, isn’t as easily defined as plot or character. “Tone” seems to mean less the more you repeat it. (Tone. Tone? Tone tone tone.) Online literary discourse (and it is mostly discourse, in its incarnation as the term for sniping and squabbling on various Twitter methadone sites, rather than discussion or conversation) hinges on plot, character, and visible surface politics, and not much else. Tone mostly comes up in the context of accusations that someone is trying to police it. You start to feel like any consideration of it is cop-brained.

But it does mean something, albeit something elusively complex; Samatar and Zambreno are approaching a definition, not declaring one finalized and laminated for safekeeping. Singular authority is what this book is running from; it’s written in first person plural for a reason.


It’s not voice, for one thing. A book with a consistent tone can contain many voices and one voice can speak in different tones. Readers often have very different feelings about the first three Earthsea books and Tehanu. (I’m lukewarm on the former and loved the latter.) They’re all in Ursula K. Le Guin’s voice but she’s writing in different tones.

Some of the metaphors Samatar and Zambreno use to approach tone:

  • Windows. (Lighted windows, stained glass windows, computer windows.) A window frames what you see through it, maybe colors it. You can be inside looking out or outside looking in. Is this the difference between the writer and the reader? Which is which?

  • Synesthesia. Tone can be a color—some books are grey, some blue. Tone can be an odor or a background noise. Sense-impressions create atmospheres; atmospheres remind us of sense-impressions.

  • Speaking of atmospheres: Ecology. Tone is established through relationships—how the materials of a text relate to each other in a complex web, like the elements of an ecosystem.

Samatar and Zambreno illustrate their arguments with close readings of several novels, and their reading of W. G. Sebald’s The Rings of Saturn lays out (even for someone like me who has not yet read it) how the ecological metaphor works. Samatar and Zambreno argue The Rings of Saturn has a distant tone, an atmosphere of parts:

  • The Rings of Saturn is structured by a long walk through Sussex—a distance travelled horizontally—after “a long stint of work.”
  • The book repeatedly watches things from heights—from a cliff, a plane, the top of a well.
  • There’s a model of the Temple of Jerusalem, which not only seems distant—we look down on models like we’re looking from a great height—but models something distant in time. The novel ponders the history of the territory the narrator walks (and “the traces of destruction, reaching far back into the past, that were evident even in that remote place”), and also thinks for a while about the 17th century writer Thomas Browne.
  • Sebald’s prose is itself old-fashioned, temporally distanced, originally written in an archaically-tinged German.

Writers arrange images, incidents, and language to resonate against (or with) each other. And then this feedback loop happens: the resonance becomes an organizing principle in itself; readers interpret images, incidents, and language through the tone.


Tone is a general exploration of tone, and also offers readings of several specific books, and at a certain point you realize you’re also reading cultural criticism. Samatar and Zambreno are writing about the tone of the world—the affective atmospheres we breathe without noticing.

The books Tone analyzes, in relation to each other, set a tone—Nella Larsen’s Quicksand, about a Black woman academic; Heike Geissler’s Seasonal Associate, about a writer working a temp job at an Amazon warehouse; Hiroko Oyamada’s The Factory, about people working absurd, meaningless jobs; Sebald’s meditations, which take in historical disasters. Samatar and Zambreno investigate tones specific to their own experiences as women in 21st century academia (the atmosphere breathed by a visiting scholar, for instance) and more broadly the tone of the world everyone shares, where capitalism is a sickening and collapsing end in itself instead of a means.

Tone is about the relations between elements in a text, but it’s also about seeing the relations between people in a culture that atomizes us and nudges us into an individualist mindset: we’re the hero, others supporting extras. In the end, Tone concludes, the book has been as much about “making a space where certain things can be said” as about tone itself.

Good criticism, like any other kind of good writing, has got to do more than one thing at a time.


These points where Samatar and Zambreno talk about tone in ecological terms struck me hardest. Another word for an ecosystem is the environment. “Environment” can also mean a social or cultural or architectural environment. In any case it’s an arrangement of materials that relate to each other in particular ways and create particular effects (or affects), and we are among those materials in both senses of the word.

In the Peanuts strip that ran August 11, 1970, Linus is just back from a trip. Everywhere he went he saw the same malls and motels and restaurants they had back home. “Every town looks like every other town… It doesn’t matter where you go… you never left!”

A lot of SFF books—popular fiction in general, really, but SFF is the genre where I keep most up to date—feel like featureless lumps of gray teflon. My attention slides off them. I’ve always found the reasons hard to pin down—nebulous and most likely myriad. But one piece of the puzzle that is my alienation from pop culture is likely a loss of cultural biodiversity. 21st century SFF favors reboots and retellings. It’s marketed as bullet lists of safely familiar “tropes” legoed together into microtargeted subgenres. Every book needs its comp titles; the most marketable use mostly the same materials in mostly the same configurations.

Tone is part of this. High-profile SFF stays within a limited range of marketable tones—straightforwardly invisible, snarky, heartwarming, spunky (this last usually written in first person present tense). SFF paints deep space, fairyland, and contemporary New York in the same tones; they color the speech of medieval Europe, the Paleolithic tundra, and posthuman Pluto. Tonally, these stories are interchangeable geography-of-nowhere theme park suburbs. A literature where, no matter where you are in space or time, you can always get McDonalds.

(It’s easy to see why media execs are comfortable with AI art: AI is inherently remixed, no potentially off-putting tone of its own. A portfolio of proven successes blended into a palatable Soylent shake.)

Samatar and Zambreno quote a speaker at a conference who says Kafka’s style is unlike any other kind of German, like a “meteor” fallen to earth. What with the books’s focus on relationships I don’t feel like it makes sense to talk about this as individuality of tone. Maybe specificity is the right word. Kafka compels because the tone of his work, like the language, is determinedly specific.

Samatar and Zambreno write that the most compelling reason to return to a book is “to breathe that air again.” But first it needs air of its own.

Sofia Samatar, The Winged Histories

Sofia Samatar’s The Winged Histories is the book for anyone who’s interested in epic fantasy but put off by series that seem approximately the size of Borges’s Library of Babel. It’s got revolutions and religious wars and political scheming and cursed monsters and a warrior woman riding a giant bird, all in one volume.

(It’s set in the same world as her earlier A Stranger in Olondria. But you don’t have to have read that book to read this one. But you should!)

Cover of The Winged Histories

Olondria is in a bit of a state. Kestenya, one of the provinces, is rebelling. Believers in Olondria’s old religion are fighting the new official religion that tried to suppress them. The Winged Histories views Oldondria’s civil war through four narrators–Tavis, who flees her shabby-genteel family to become a soldier, Tialon, the daughter of the Priest of the Stone, Seren, Tavis’s nomadic lover, and Siski, Tavis’s more conventional sister. All four are given individual voices and storytelling styles and points of view. The writing is, as in Samatar’s earlier novel, beautiful; it doesn’t just tell us what her characters feel, it conveys what feeling those things feels like to them.

For me, The Winged Histories is likely to be the best fantasy novel of the year. The problem with reviewing a novel that good after a first reading is that it can be hard to explain what made it so good. It’s easier to step back and analyze the books I’m less caught up in. I’m reduced to waving at it and saying “look at that,” and I’m not sure what to wave at first. Although doesn’t it say something that there are multiple waving-targets to choose from? So many fantasy novels just tell a story and leave it at that; once you’ve closed the last volume there’s no reason to think about it again. The Winged Histories is full of ideas.

Maybe history? Because this is a book about history. I will acknowledge that in some fantasy novels historical exposition can be a bad sign. The Winged Histories isn’t that kind of book. The problems with fantasy history come up when novels infodump a load of ancient creation myths explaining where the generic Evil Forces came from and what Mighty Plot Coupon the hero needs to make them go away. The Winged Histories is about history, and brief passages from Olondria’s official history actually appear in the novel, but it’s the kind of history people feel things about. The Winged Histories is about history that affects its characters’ lives and material realities. It matters to Tavis and Siski that Kestenya, their home, is part of Olondria, and that once it wasn’t. It makes a difference in their lives that their family has ties to Olondria’s rulers–their cousin Dasya is an heir to the throne–that, correctly exploited, could make their family important again.

Tavis is not, at first, concerned with history. She joins the army just because she wants to be a soldier. We get her limited view of the border skirmishes that keep the army busy on the edge of Kestenya. Who is she fighting, and why? She’s not totally sure. She starts to think maybe it’s not good that she’s not sure. Maybe, if she’s going to risk her life, she should risk it for Kestenya. The history of Olondria is placed between the narrators’ sections, so we don’t get exposition until we’ve gotten to know Tavis, and she’s started caring about history, and so by that point we care about Olondria’s history, too.

The historical sections are titled “From Our Common History.” There’s an understanding here–often elided in fantasy–that history is told from a certain point of view, that histories choose certain facts to present, leaving others out. Even objective, honest histories–there’s a lot of information out there, too much for any one history to hold. That’s why there’s always room for new histories of events we’ve studied for centuries: there’s always more to tell.

Tavis, Seren, and Siski are family. Tialon seems the odd one out in this novel; she doesn’t personally know any of them, though she meets Dasya and she also has a connection to A Stranger in Olondria, having appeared in that book. Tialon has spent her life in a tower with her father, the Priest of the Stone. The Stone is literally a big rock, covered in criss-crossing carvings, that serves as his holy book. Tialon is an insider and an outsider: she’s watching a family she has no connection to from a center of power she’s never had the chance to leave.

The Stone, it turns out, has a lot more writing on it than the Priest wanted translated. A lot of people wrote a lot of different lines on this rock. Some of it sounds religious, some more mundane. The Priest calls the extra lines “Orphans” after a line he found on the Stone cursing “these orphans darkening my path.” He’s decided they’re just graffiti some punks scraped into his holy artifact although, as one scholar points out, some of the mundane lines might sound profound when taken metaphorically. The thing is, it’s entirely up to the Priest which lines are the voice of his god and which are Orphans. The Stone is a grab bag from which the Priest picked the lines that told the story he wanted to tell. Yet in his mind he isn’t that story’s author: it came from the Stone.

But by picking out the lines he wants and suppressing the others, he’s not getting the complete story. The texts on the stone are woven into and written through each other, all part of the same artifact. Tialon realizes that people, too, are “written into each other.” She doesn’t know Tavis, Siski, or Seren, but their choices affect her life, and, whether they ever realize it or not, choices Tialon makes affect theirs. Lives coexist and cross over; people are context for each other. Even people who don’t know or think anything about each other (that “orphans” line was, after all, probably referring to actual orphans).

Historical infodumps tend not to work in generic epic fantasy, but that isn’t because fantasy history is an inherently bad idea–it’s that less accomplished fantasies don’t understand history as The Winged Histories does. History isn’t important because it’s full of mysteriously accurate prophecies, or because it contains instructions for defeating the Sauron of the Month. It’s important because it’s the context for people’s lives.

Sofia Samatar, A Stranger in Olondria

I haven’t posted to this blog in ages. I want to start writing again about the books I read: I don’t feel like I’ve been thinking about any of them as much as I should, and as a result I’ve increasingly gone for books with less in them to think about. Writing blog posts helps me get my thoughts in order.

I’m out of practice again and I expect for some time my writing will be terrible. One reason I haven’t blogged in a while is that everything I wrote seemed clumsy and pompous. Maybe before I can write well again I’ll just have to work through a clumsy pompous phase.

I’ll start by finishing book reviews I left half-written months ago. Like this one:

Coverof A Stranger in Olondria

Sofia Samatar’s A Stranger in Olondria was the best fantasy novel I read in 2014, and maybe the best fantasy novel of 2013, period. It’s among a few books that restored my interest in SF and fantasy at a time when I’d nearly given up on the genres.

Stranger is a secondary-world fantasy about Jevick of Tyom, a young merchant who travels to a foreign country whose language and literature he loves. When the ghost of a fellow islander turns up to dictate her memoirs he’s caught between two religious factions with different ideas about people who can speak with ghosts, and discovers how little he knows the place.

I’ve seen reviews of Stranger complain the early chapters aren’t heavy on plot. This isn’t wrong, but it misses the point: Stranger just isn’t doing what these reviewers expected. The first couple of chapters are first-person immersive fantasy written as memoir, and you might expect that approach to continue through the end of the book, but this novel isn’t satisfied with a single genre or voice. Here’s a paragraph from the chapter when Jevick first sees the Olondrian city of Bain:

I loved the book markets under the swinging trees, the vast array of books on tables, in boxes, stacked on the ground, and the grand old villas converted into bookshops. I loved the Old City also, which is called the “Quarter of Sighs,” with its barred windows and brooding fortified towers, and I loved to watch the canal winding below the streets and bridges and the stealthy boats among the shadows of trees.

This is literary travel writing about an imaginary place. Jevick builds an impressionistic portrait of Bain from the specific details a charmed foreign tourist would notice, “selling” Bain to the reader as in a travel article. Later Jevick wakes after a wild night and sees only Bain’s tawdry side, the opposite of the details he noticed before. When the haunting begins Stranger conveys Jevick’s confusion with fragmented present tense excerpts from his diary. Stranger is an anthology of different kinds of fantasy writing, slipping into whatever style suits the story in that moment.

At the time I read it this was just what I needed. See, SF fandom has this obsession with “transparent prose.” Prose, in this theory, is a clear, clean window through which the reader “sees” a story. The text disappears; the content flows pure and undistorted from the writer’s brain to the reader’s. Which makes no sense, because the prose is what the content is made of. I like good straightforward prose, but most “transparent prose” novels are devoid of personality or voice. They erase their narrators and points of view, posing as stories told by nobody. I’ve given up on popular, much-recommended SF and fantasy novels because they read like neutral Wikipedia summaries of themselves. A Stranger in Olondria restored my enthusiasm for the genres by moving through several styles of writing and doing them all brilliantly.

Those same reviews seemed to feel that Stranger picked up halfway through, and I think that’s because after Olondria’s religious squabbles ensnare Jevick his story enters more familiar territory, resembling the quest fantasies whose heroes learn their world (and teach it to the readers) by traveling it. Jevick gets one take on Olondria from its religious authorities, and another from the cultists interested in his newfound abilities as a medium, and the people and places he encounters as he travels deepen and complicate both sides of the argument. Stranger travels through other genres along the way–history, folktales, poetry. The climax of the novel is the story of Jissavet, Jevick’s ghost. Jevick and Jissavet both write memoirs but their voices are nothing alike. This is partly characterization but also partly structural: Jissavet speaks extemporaneously. She orders her story thematically as well as chronologically, letting one memory remind her of another as people do when recollecting aloud.

It’s a book about books that itself samples many kinds of books. And in saying that I may have just put some people off. Since the audience for novels inevitably consists of people who love books, it’s tempting for stories about books to get overly sentimental. Books change readers’ lives, dude; create worlds in which they escape their miseries. These stories ascribe near-magical powers and omniscient wisdom to our favorite pulped-wood products, sometimes flat-out declaring that books are better than people. I’ve felt this myself sometimes; that’s probably true of anybody who loves books.

A Stranger in Olondria is a novel, so you know it’s going to come down on the pro-book side. But the story it tells is more complicated. Jevick’s books haven’t fully prepared him for life and his story is partly about learning to love them wisely. I won’t get too far into this topic; there’s a review at Asking the Wrong Questions that goes deeper than I can manage. But Stranger’s argument for the value of literacy is more specific and more interesting than most “Books Rule!” stories.

One of the few books I managed to review in the last couple of years was Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties That Bound, a social history of medieval British peasant communities. Hanawalt resorted to combing through accident reports to reconstruct these peoples’ lives. There aren’t many primary sources on medieval peasants; they weren’t always literate and didn’t leave many letters or diaries. Their families knew their stories, and maybe passed them down for a few generations, but it’s hard to get the wider world to care about great-grandpa William’s misadventure with the haywain. So the pre-mass-literacy Europeans we know best are the upper classes, those famous and influential enough to be written about. The closer you get to the present the less true that is. The spread of mass literacy meant that more and more people, and more and more kinds of people, sent letters and kept diaries. Our view of 13th-century peasants is almost entirely from the outside, but we can learn more about the point of view of, for example, 19th-century mill workers.

What’s most relevant to Stranger is that literacy doesn’t just preserve the voices of people overlooked by history. It preserves the voices of people no one, even their peers, thought worth listening to in the first place. The stories that survive through oral tradition do so because a community actively chose to pass them along, and the criteria it uses to make those choices aren’t necessarily good. Every family has relatives they don’t talk about and every community has people they’ve decided don’t matter. Jissavet is desperate for Jevick to write her book because the illness she died of made her an outcast. In life no one would listen to her. And maybe no one wants to listen to her now, but writing, unlike speech, can survive without anyone actively paying attention. Barring accident or active censorship, the words will still be there if and when someone wants to listen.

When Jevick returns home, he decides to become a kind of teacher called a tchavi. Traditionally these teachers lived on mountains, making prospective students struggle to reach them like gurus out of New Yorker cartoons. Jevick instead comes into town, teaching anyone who wants to write.

Books are as close as we can get to long-distance mind-to-mind communication. They fulfill their potential when they give minds of all kinds the chance to connect. And writing can communicate across time: if no one wants to hear it now, it will (assuming at least one copy survives) still be waiting, unchanged, for a more receptive audience.