Or What You Will
by Jo Walton
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
Posted June 7, 2020
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Thanks to Edelweiss, Tor, and the author for the chance to read this remarkable book early in exchange for an honest review. Jo Walton's Or What You Will will be published on July 7. It's a story about stories, where they come from, how the writer brings them to life on the page, how they sometimes have a mind of their own, creating themselves and changing beyond the control of the author. Do writers really have muses? Do they converse with them, allow them to control the narrative?
Silvia Katherine Harrison is a 73-year-old successful writer of fantasies, thirty books over forty years, several of them award winners. Her first book was the beginning of a trilogy about the mythical land of Illyria, modeled after Renaissance Florence. By the end of the trilogy she had inserted her muse into the story in the guise of the mystical philosopher Pico, who sacrificed himself to insure immortality for everyone else in Illyria. Yes, that is an allusion to Christ, as was Tolkien's Gandalf, and Lewis's Aslan, as well as others the narrator does not mention. Fantasy uses allegory and metaphor as Jesus did in his parables, to help readers better understand the moral of the story. This was not the only time her muse was the basis for a character. He is narrating this story, telling us "I have been too many things to count. I have been a dragon with a boy on his back. I have been a scholar, a warrior, a lover, and a thief. I have been dream and dreamer. I have been a godů I have been a character, and I have been a narrator, but now I don't know what I am."
Silvia returns to her favorite city, Florence, or Firenze as it is known to Italians. After decades of other stories, she decides she also wants to return to Illyria, yet she and her muse have different ideas of how to continue the story. She wants to add two characters from the 19th Century, who stumble into Illyria through a mysterious portal, as Pico had many years before. They find Illyria is still in the Renaissance period, there has been no progress beyond that, and the people are hundreds of years older thanks to Pico's Triumph. Unbeknownst to Silvia, but maybe not to her muse, other characters have inserted themselves into the narrative. Miranda, from Shakespeare's The Tempest, had been Duke of Firenze, but now that position is held by her son Orsino, from Shakespeare's Twelth Night, whose father is Ferrante, King of Syracuse. Orsino has imprisoned, and blinded, his half-brother Geryon (a Greek mythological figure) in the tower of the Duomo, the cathedral designed by Marsilio Ficino, just one of several historical figures depicted. Geryon is the son of Miranda and Caliban. Caliban had been imprisoned on Tempest Island, but finally breaks free, and traveling underground, under the sea, he bursts forth into Ficino's house in search of his son. He is persuaded to allow Ficino and Miranda two days to convince Orsino to free Geryon.
In between sequences in Illyria, we learn bits of Silvia's personal story. Her muse could be considered an imaginary friend from her childhood, one she sees in a reflection in Bristol glass in a cabinet in her house. She is convinced her mother does not love her, she is treated differently than her siblings, or at least perceives it that way. She is also sure her mother saw the reflection too, and destroyed it. Adrift without her friend, Silvia had to rely on other family and friends to weather a traumatic childhood. While at university she meets the brother of a friend, a successful lawyer, a charmer. She marries Steve as a means to escape her mother, only to wind up in an even more abusive relationship. After five years, and many beatings, just as she decides she must leave him, her imaginary friend returns to help her. Silvia eventually marries another man, a much better man, loving and kind, the perfect father to their children. It is through Idris, and seeing his loving family, that Silvia learns it is possible for an abused woman to transcend that situation and end the cycle. It is likely she used her writing as a means of therapy, a way to work out her inner turmoils, her hopes, dreams, and fears. Her first husband had ridiculed her interest in fantasy, and while Idris preferred science fiction, he was fully supportive of Silvia's work. As she did in her Hugo and Nebula winning Among Others, Walton drops in names of Silvia and Idris's favorite writers. For Silvia it's Tanith Lee, Roger Zelazny, and John M. Ford; Idris likes the SF of Le Guin, Bujold, and Kim Stanley Robinson. In addition to these, and the Shakespeare references, historical figures, writings, architecture, and art are mentioned. You need to be familiar with most of them, or willing to google as you read, to understand the connections. This is not for the casual reader.
I'm not a good enough reviewer to relate the beauty of the language, the metaphors and allusions, without quoting long passages, which I'm not supposed to do since I read an uncorrected proof. Another problem with trying would involve spoilers. The muse/imaginary friend could be viewed as a means Silvia used to cope with her mother, and later her first husband. Or it can be seen as real, a part of Silvia's psyche, a part of her soul. Ideas have a weight of their own, a reality beyond the ephemeral nature of thought. What her muse doesn't have for the majority of the book is a name, even though Silvia did have a name for them. I don't know if that name is the same as the one uttered at the end, or whether it was influenced by the Illyrian narrative. I'm not going to reveal that, except to say it may have a connection with other elements of the story, or it might be a reference to another work of literature, since that name has been used in many. Silvia and her muse enter Illyria in the end, which was what her muse wanted, so they both could live forever. This book will live in my memory for a long time, and I know I'll be re-reading, probably multiple times. Highly recommended. It's in contention for my favorite of the year.
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