“No, but I can’t count on you, can I? You who live under the relentless and fickle reign of Crastina. You are uncertain, potential, and as we compose these words you don’t even know I exist. You, who may not even be born yet as we stand in the rose garden on the afternoon of July 16th 2018? You lingered in the passage looking at the faded spines of the books, remember? You didn’t want to open the door into the rose garden. We made a contract back at the beginning of the book, I’d tell you stories and I promised I wouldn’t make you do anything but read. And besides, you could read this book a hundred times (it’s all right, I don’t expect you to) and give me a hundred different names. What kind of immortality would that be?”
Synopsis: Within the mind of 73-year-old award-winning author Sylvia Harris resides a being… a character, if you will. He has been all manner of things, in all manner of lives. In truth, he is a spark, a spirit of intellect, and he has been Sylvia’s companion for many years. Now, Sylvia writes what may be her final novel set in her fictional world of Thalia. When Sylvia goes, that will be the end of him… unless, of course, he gets her to agree to his plan. Together, can they conquer even death?
As I sit here writing this, with a Summer berry crisp baking in the oven (Walton’s writing whets the appetite… I couldn’t help myself), I am still turning the words around in my head. What did I just read? What does it all mean? I certainly have an idea, but the trick here is to describe it to you without ruining the artistry upon the page; not so simple a task. One could discuss protagonists, and plot structure, and the dialogue, and a whole host of other things… similarly, one could describe the chemical composition of the paint in Raphael’s “The School of Athens”. To do so in either case would be a silly and pointless exercise. The artistry is more than a simple arrangement of parts. As such, I’ll try to avoid a formulaic review of this story.
I’ll admit that this is the first Jo Walton book I’ve ever read, and I feel privileged as a Montrealer to see our city through her eyes. Her description of the city, good and bad, evokes memories of my childhood and growing up in the province of Quebec. The referendum to separate Quebec from Canada was a trying time for Quebec English-speakers, and Sylvia’s recollection of it stirred some long-buried emotions in me. I never had to suffer quite the same prejudice as a bilingual person, but many others whom I know and love were impacted. This longing for acceptance and community (to me) is at the core of Walton’s text, and our own provincial struggles makes an apt metaphor. Sylvia’s fictional world is one in which newcomers and interlopers are not shunned, but are instead granted unquestioning dignity and respect. A woman can dress as a man if she so pleases, and it is considered polite to not bring it up. Everyone understands each other, and it is not viewed as any sort of concern. Her fabulous descriptions of Firenze/Florence only magnify my own desire to visit (the food also helps…); here as well we find communal gatherings of import, such as the dining club Sylvia frequents. This longing, this desire to belong, is everywhere.
The primary narrator, Sylvia’s “spark” of inspiration, spirit, whatever you’d like to call him, is a literary tool I am not quite used to… use of the 2nd Person to address the reader directly isn’t something I encounter often, and Walton jokingly addresses this in the text, noting that it is primarily used in erotica. It requires a certain uncomfortable submission on the part of the reader, but it also draws one into the text. One allows the story to become reality, however temporary. The narrator is not merely a disembodied voice: they are speaking to YOU, the reader. This blur between the narrative and reality is central to the plot, and Walton uses numerous layers to emphasize it. This is, of course, a story about stories. It is a story about the act of creation, the author’s relation to the text, mortality/immortality, and sacrifice. Thalia, the fictional world in Sylvia’s writing, is built on a foundation of sacrifice. It is only through the death/sacrifice of Pico that death was conquered. Pico literally wove himself into the fabric of his world. On the other hand, the price for conquering death was Progress. The interplay between life/death, author/story, and stability/progress is a central theme as well, and I’ll leave these depths for the Academics to plumb; my University days have passed, and I’ve no doubt that you didn’t come here to read a PhD paper on the Narrative Process. Suffice it to say that this is a text rich with questions and perhaps, for those willing to brave some introspection, some important answers.
“Or What You Will” is like no other Fantasy novel I’ve ever read. If you are coming in expecting the tropes of Epic Fantasy, you will be sorely disappointed: this is not that sort of tale. If, on the other hand, you value the importance of craftsmanship, or the delicate interplay between our world and the fantasies we make for ourselves, then this book will change you. You’ll be taken to many beautiful places, and contemplate the breadth of the human experience. I struggle to do it justice, and can only urge you to give it a chance. It is a pleasure to read, with its beautiful language, creative narratives, and colorful use of Shakespeare’s catalog. I truly believe this is one of the first masterpieces of the new decade, by an incredible Hugo-award-winning author.
Note: I normally post my Amazon affiliate link here, but I’ll ask instead for you to please support a local Montreal bookshop, Argo. Thank-you!
You can also follow Jo Walton on Twitter @BluejoWalton