Book review: Or What You Will

Or What You Will

Or What You Will,
by Jo Walton
Tor/Forge/Macmillan
Release date 7/7/2020
320 pages
Fantasy/Literary fiction

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I have to admit I had never heard of Jo Walton, even though she has written over 75 books. But something in the synopsis of her upcoming Or What You Will grabbed me, and I entered a giveaway through the Shelf Awareness Newsletter. I’m glad I won the book and can now present it to you.

The book opens with a gorgeous and very lyrical chapter, that I actually had to reread several times. At first, you don’t understand who is speaking, and what it all means, but I don’t think you can remain insensitive to the beauty of these first pages.

Or What You Will p6

Page 6

Then you realize (it’s actually part of the synopsis, so no spoiler here) this mysterious he is inside the brain of 73 year old author, Sylvia. He has accompanied her all her life, as he is basically her inspiration, her spark of genius behind all her books.
But Sylvia is getting old and sick, and he doesn’t want her to disappear, because he would also die. So he is going to try to find a way of keeping her alive.

We scholars never lose our thirst to learn and understand, and so we live on.
Page 75

This may sound too fantastic, and trust me, I usually don’t read fantasy. But this is so much more.

It’s actually a clever work of metafiction (as is explicitly alluded to on page 10), at many levels. The first level, as you can see, is the interaction between the author and not only her characters, but the idea behind her characters.
Another obvious level is the reference to Shakespeare in the title. And indeed, there’s much in this book about Twelfth Night, The Tempest, Macbeth, and many more I’m sure. And about mythology (Greek and Hindu for instance).

It works this way: chapters more or less alternate, between first person narrative told by he, where he converses with Sylvia, and tells the reader about his plan.
And chapters which actually consist in the last book Sylvia is in the process of writing. And this book is actually like a fanfiction based on Shakespeare’s plays, with the same characters, but different endings to the plots as we know them. And add to that the dimension of time travel and the presence of a wizard and a monster.

The whole book is a wonderful love letter to Shakespeare, to the classics (those remembered and those forgotten), and also more generally to the art of reading, of writing, to art life, to Italy (especially Firenze aka Florence) and the Renaissance and its many geniuses, including in visual arts, such as painting and architecture. Pico della Mirandola occupies a central place.

It contains great reflections on the fantasy genre (cf. C.S. Lewis and Tolkien), on poetry (see Byron), on the author as such, on the relationship between authors and their books and characters, also on the importance of names given to characters.
It’s luscious with its profusion of great details (about food!, art, geography, and history –The Black Death!– for instance, as well as clothes, housing, domestic life), that come to interrupt the narrative in a very fluid way.

Tish sips her wine, which warms her down to her toes. She wonders if it is magic or just cooking, and whether there’s really a difference.
Page 232

The book is also a long reflection on progress, on death and mortality or immortality.

Readers remember you. So you’ll live on in the books. It’s the only form of immortality the real world has.
Page 83

There were just a couple of chapters that I found dragging and not really necessary, on Sylvia’s childhood. I felt these slowed down too much the pace of the whole book. That’s the reason why I didn’t give the book 5 stars.

I haven’t read The Tempest and Twelfth Night for  a few years, so I’m afraid I probably missed lots of details in the references. So if you have time to reread or rewatch these plays before reading the book, I think your reading will be all the more richer.

To conclude, I love this epitaph for one of the characters:

May the light behind the stars illuminate her.
Page 145

VERDICT: Unique fantasy love letter to the Renaissance. Luscious!

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HAVE YOU READ THIS BOOK?
Any other great novel by Jo Walton you would recommend?
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In full compliance with FTC Guidelines, I received this book free of charge for review. I was in no way compensated for this post as a reviewer, and the thoughts are my own.

4 thoughts on “Book review: Or What You Will

  1. I am so happy for you that you have met Jo Walton. I have read and loved two books by her: Among Others and My Real Children. I keep meaning to read more by her. She writes in such an engaging way.

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