Or What You Will

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.

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15 Responses to Or What You Will

  1. everydayhas says:

    Thank you so much for this review! I have loved many of Jo Walton’s books, but she is such a diverse author that a few of her recent ones weren’t for me, and so I’d lost track of her a bit. This one sounds like a good fit!

  2. Jeanne says:

    I thank you for this review also. I love Jo Walton; she’s a wonderful person and a good author, so I always read her books, but I got stuck at the beginning of this one and you make me want to go back!

    • Teresa says:

      It took me a while to get into this–I almost abandoned it after the first couple of chapters. But once I started to get into the rhythm of it (or maybe it settled down), I enjoyed it.

  3. Lory says:

    Well this sounds interesting (Jo Walton’s ideas are always interesting!) and fits in with my Reading the Theatre project this month. Somehow it had fallen off my radar so thanks so much for calling it to my attention.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, very much in the theatrical vein! I’ve been reading your theatre posts–I used to see shows once a month or so, sometimes more, and I ache to see something on stage again. For me, reading plays just isn’t the same.

      • Lory says:

        No, it’s not, is it? It always makes me want to see a production or a film version at least. On the other hand, sometimes I appreciate being able to linger over some especially beautiful language.

  4. Rohan Maitzen says:

    This is an intriguing premise! I’ve read some of Walton’s that I really liked – but how did I miss Trollope with dragons?! (That one might actually be a bit too far outside my comfort zone, and yet how can I resist?)

    • Teresa says:

      Tooth and Claw is so great! My understanding is that she basically nicked the plot from Framley Parsonage (which I haven’t actually read). It feels a great deal like a Victorian novel, it’s just that everyone is a dragon, with some specific dragon needs and concerns. I would love to know what you make of it.

  5. Maggie Redic says:

    I’d never heard of Jo Walton so am thrilled to read this review. I see her body of work is vast and diverse so a lot of good reading awaits me. Curious if you (or others here) have a recommendation for where to start?

    • Teresa says:

      I think Tooth and Claw is where I started, and it is still a favorite and I think generally well loved by anyone who can get past the premise. I also really love the Small Change books.

  6. Ruthiella says:

    I’ve only read Among Others and Farthing by Walton and I have All My Real Children lined up to read this year. I first thought of her as a science fiction writer, but really I don’t think any one genre quite fits her output.

    • Teresa says:

      Yes, her repertoire is vast, but she’s pretty reliable. I’ve read a big chunk of her books and have found them all worth my time. My Real Children is one of the ones I haven’t gotten to.

  7. I’ve been meaning to reread Helen Oyeyemi’s Mr Fox, and I am now thinking it might be neat to reread that around the same time I read this. To see! How they compare! This sounds really strange and interesting, which is basically what I’ve come to expect from Jo Walton.

    • Teresa says:

      I thought of Mr Fox as I was reading this! But it’s been so long that I couldn’t make a good comparison. From what I remember this is less loopy and weird than Mr Fox, but I would expect Oyeyemi to be weirder. One of the things I love about Walton is that she manages to be strange and straightforward at the same time.

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