Week ninety-two of Lite Reads comes to a close as we finish our selection An Account of the Land of Witches by Sofia Samatar. There were questions as food for thought on social media as people had the chance to read it and think about it. Before I announce the next Lite Reads selection (August 3), I will be sharing my own thoughts here. Spoilers ahead for those who have not read the story yet.
An Account of the Land of Witches by Sofia Samatar is a short fantasy story told in five parts. The first part is the titular “An Account of The Land of Witches”, in which Arta, an enslaved woman, describes how her master brought her to a strange land where Dream Science is used to create magic for the women living there and Arta improves her own life by learning Dream Science. When we move on to the second part, we read “A Refutation of An Account of The Land of Witches” which was written by Taharqo of Qorm, a jewel merchant and Arta’s master. Taharqo offers a completely different account, in which he reveals that Arta has fled after learning Dream Science, although he believes Dream Science to be the mass delusion of the people in the Land of Witches, all of whom he clearly thinks very little of. He sees them having taught Arta Dream Science as them having turned her against him and her leaving as a betrayal. In the third section, we read “A Refutation of the Refutation of the Account of the Land of Witches,” set in what seems to be the present day, where Sagal is writing her dissertation on the original documents and trying to find the original locations on a trip home to Sudan, where she is stuck after not being allowed on the plane back to North America. As Sagal learns Dream Science, she slips further away from her research and her family and closer to the Land of Witches. The fourth section is “Notes Toward a Dreamer’s Lexicon,” a poetic reference tool for the words required for Dream Science, something originally written by Arta and added to by Sagal. In the fifth and final section, “The Travellers,” we follow a band of amateur witches as they search for the Land of Witches, using the notes of the previous sections to guide them on their hopeful journey.
An Account of the Land of Witches offers up some truly phenomenal fantasy writing. The world-building is so thorough and each section necessitates more complexities in the world-building than the one before it. The first section stylistically reminds me of classic fantasy stories, and it made me think of my experiences of reading a number of older fantasy works. In particular, I thought of a previous Lite Reads selection, Sultana’s Dream by Rokeya Sakhawat Hossain. The way Arta introduces the reader to the Land of Witches in such an exploratory way even as she is only exploring it for the first time herself just made me feel a lot like I did when I read Sultana’s Dream. The second section felt like reading the actual writings of slavers and colonizers from centuries ago, which was admittedly disturbing, although it fit the character and world perfectly, and added a great deal of mystery that would be built upon in subsequent sections. The third section seems to be set in our own modern world, with Sagal fixating on the Land of Witches in a way that felt like a more modern otherworld fantasy. I think the way the fourth section added to all of it was really interesting and probably the least expected. Although it appears on a surface level to be a list of words to cue dreams for the witches, as written by both Arta and Sagal, it manages to extend beyond that by offering a deeper insight into the events of the first and third sections, adding a hidden meaning to words that seemed to be insignificant at the time. The writing itself here may be in a list format, but it reads as a magical sort of poetry. The final section of the story offers up a sort of adventure story where all of the characters are witches who have complete access to their magic, but have yet to find the Land of Witches, giving us something of a grail quest to end the tale. These shifts give the story such depth and complexity, exploring the breadth of the fantasy genre, that it was hard to believe it was a short story at times.
The use of perspective in An Account of the Land of Witches is fantastic as well. Each section gives us such a jarringly different perspective that it seems almost impossible that these parts belong to one complete story, but the story wouldn’t be complete if it were missing a single part. Exploring the interior of such different characters was interesting, and it really showed off what a talented writer Samatar is. The way she was able to portray each of these characters as entirely their own people, whether these were people you could like and cheer for or whether they were villains, was refreshing. I know there are numerous stories that portray similar events through multiple perspectives, but in my opinion, this is a standout example.
I thought the way this story portrayed differences between countries, cultures, time periods, and individuals was really refreshing. Even though the fantasy settings felt very different from our own world, they also managed to capture these dynamics perfectly. I think the ways slavery and colonialism were portrayed felt especially true to our world history. I think dealing with these subjects in a fantasy setting can be very difficult to get right and not accidentally do harm, but it felt true to life while never veering anywhere close to trauma porn and it still managed to keep me firmly in the fantasy setting while reading. The way it’s all put together to use this vibrant fantasy world to reckon with a painful history is artful and accessible all at once.
Overall, An Account of the Land of Witches by Sofia Samatar was a wonderful fantasy short story and something I really loved reading. I’ve actually never read anything from Samatar prior to this story, and it’s helped give me the kick to bump her novels up my TBR. It’s definitely something I’d recommend.
I hope everyone who participated by reading the story and following along on social media enjoyed reading this short story. If you have more thoughts to add, please feel free to comment on this post, or anywhere on The Feminist Bibliothecary’s social media. Week ninety-three begins shortly, August 3, with a brand new short story selection chosen for Women in Translation Month!