- The Good: Fantasy book about reading and writing, birth and creation, and living forever
- The Bad: Not for novice readers
- The Literary: Story within a story, Shakespeare, LeGuin, and the Italian Renaissance
Award-winning author of over thirty novels, Sylvia Harrison, 73, has someone who exists solely in her mind. He’s played a part in most of her novels, whether as a scholar, a warrior, a thief, a god, or a dragon. But his consciousness is real and separate from Sylvia, and as she nears death, he fears he’ll die too. As Sylvia writes a new fantasy novel set in a world similar to renaissance Florence, he sets out convince her that they can both become immortal if she writes themselves into the book.
I adore this novel for a lot of reasons, but one is because it’s unlike anything I’ve ever read.
Let’s start with the narrator,Sylvia’s muse. He narrates his own life both inside Sylvia’s head and embodying Sylvia’s characters, his calling into existence, and how his thoughts and opinions are separate and distinct from Sylvia’s. It’s a sort of rambling story that jumps around in time as he shares Sylvia’s past and their life together, follows Sylvia around as she writes and researches her book in Italy, and as he tries to convince Sylvia that he has a plan for their immortality. As Sylvia ages, she begins to accept the inevitability of her death, but he can’t. And it’s no wonder. As a muse, he barely qualifies as living entity. Sylvia isn’t even sure he’s real. As a reader, you want to believe, but skepticism lurks in the corner, waiting for a rationale to explain him away. So what chance does a little muse have to beat death? Not much, and that’s why you root for him.
Alongside chapters of Sylvia and her muse discussing life and death in the present day, chapters in Sylvia’s new book are revealed as she writes them. The story-within-a-story is also set in Italy, or rather a fantasy version of renaissance Florence called Thalia. Two 19th century teenagers, Dolly and Tish, stumble into a world where death is rare, wizards heal, and giants roam, and learn to navigate their new world and interpret signs from their gods.
It’s no secret that Jo Walton is a huge fan of scifi and fantasy. See her series of essays compiled in An Informal History of the Hugos: A Personal Look Back at the Hugo Awards, or if that isn’t enough, fans of her work no doubt enjoy the referential nature of her novels. Or What You Will is no different, and in it you’ll likely find lots of fantasy works you need to add to your reading list, but there’s also significant references to the Bible, Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night and The Tempest, and Brunelleschi’s art and architecture. But let me clarify. Some works are referential in that they copy great works or want to generate some sort of in-group fan-boy club. Walton is referential in that she praises great works, incorporating them into her stories in a wholly original way, and genuinely invites the reader to explore the art she finds joyful and miraculous.
Whereas many of Walton’s books seek to elevate the joy of reading, this also offers a glimpse into the magic and the mundane of creation. As with her muse, Sylvia’s characters are set upon the page, given life, only to surprise her with their own actions. Writing can be stifled for weeks by an uncomfortable chair or stories can leap into reality when you least expect them. Realities and time and life and death are blurred, resulting a postmodern fantasy with all the fun of metaphysical lucidity without the pretentiousness.
Highly recommended for serious fans of fantasy, the craft of writing, Renaissance history, and playful reflections on death.