Sylvia Harrison has written dozens of novels and multiple series, but now that she’s in her 70s, widowed, and diagnosed with cancer, it seems that her career, and her life, are winding down. This is a serious concern for the unnamed narrator of Or What You Will. He lives in Sylvia’s head and has appeared in many of her books, in one form or another. And if Sylvia dies, what will become of him?
She is the poet and I am trapped in her head. What I need to save her from has to be death. Because when she dies, where am I then? This bone cave is bounded in more than one way, for it is also bounded in time.
Knowing that his time is nearly up, the narrator begins talking to Sylvia. This isn’t a new thing — they’ve been companions for many years. But now, the conversations are more urgent as he has an agenda of his own, to bring Sylvia to Illyria, the setting of several of her books.
This novel by Jo Walton has the narrator telling the readers of his plan to save Sylvia. (He uses second person, but assures us readers he will not have us actually do anything.) As the narrator works out his plan, Sylvia goes to Florence, a city she has always loved, to work on her final novel, which returns to Illyria. Illyria is a version of Florence frozen in the time of the Renaissance and featuring characters from both The Tempest and Twelfth Night, as well as some real-life artists and philosophers. This kind of play with combining people from different times and places will be familiar to readers of Walton’s Thessaly books. In this case, two people from the 19th century are transported to Illyria, and they (along with Miranda, Orsina, and others) must figure out what their arrival means. Could the gods who let the people of Illyria live forever, without actually experiencing progress, be up to something new?
One of the things I enjoy about Jo Walton’s books is her sense of play. This is, after all, the author who gave us Anthony Trollope with dragons in Tooth and Claw. And this novel is playful. I wonder how much people who haven’t read or seen much Shakespeare would get out of some of what she’s doing. The Tempest in particular seems like essential reading for this book. Then again, I know nothing about Marsilio Ficino, who is central to the story, and I don’t think it affected my understanding. I may just have missed out on some of Walton’s creative ways of playing with who he was in life.
Much of the book’s play involves boundaries, between fiction and real life, between past and present and future, between life and death, even a bit between make and female. (Hence the presence of Twelfth Night.) All this play does at times make it hard to work out exactly what the narrator is planning or why it’s supposed to work, but I’m not sure that’s really important. What’s important is the idea that fiction is somehow real and that it’s real in ways that are bigger than the books themselves. It’s as real, perhaps, as we allow it to be.