A Writer, a Muse, and a 15th Century Florentine Philosopher Walks into a Gelato Bar: A Review of Jo Walton’s Or What You Will

Ficino looks at him sadly. “How many times will I have to lose you, old friend?”
“It doesn’t matter how many, does it? As long as you always get me back.

Ms Walton remains one of the most original minds writing in the science-fiction and fantasy genre today to me, but even I could not anticipate the places that she went to with her latest novel, Or What You Will. The premise surrounds a protean nameless character living in the mind of an aging, award-winning author named Sylvia Harrison. He (always male), had embodied many characters she wrote over her 40-year career, but he remained a figment of her imagination. And when she dies, he would too.

But he has a plan to save her.

It is an exhilarating read, not because of its pace or twists, but because I got the feeling that this is a book written by an author who writes what she wants, not what she thinks her readers wants. In a way, this reads like a spiritual sequel to Among Others—which achieved the coveted double win of both the Nebula and the Hugo. I can imagine Mori, the protagonist of Among Others, a teen girl coping with her abusive mother by reading sci-fi and fantasy growing up into Sylvia, who writes them but she is still haunted and irreversibly moulded by the abuses she experienced in her past. And like with Mori, I found myself asking the same question… where does author Sylvia Harrison ends and Jo Walton begins?

While Ms Walton had always been a fresh and original breath of air in the genre, I did not anticipate how experimental, and postmodern Or What You Will turned out to be. There are several levels of story going on at the same time, layered on one another like an impossible book-shaped cake. There is the story of Sylvia in the past; there is the story of Sylvia in the present time; there is the story of the story that Sylvia is writing presently; and overlaying it all is the story of her nameless muse, flitting through all the layers like an inter-dimensional traveller. If Among Others is an ode to readers, Or What You Will is a love letter to writers as it gracefully weaves a narrative around the process of narration, inspiration, authorial research, genre commentary, mortality, posthumous posterity, and fictional auto-surrogacy. I sprained my brain thinking about how Ms Walton wrote herself into a fictional writer writing herself into fiction. There are parts of the book that are being written as you are reading it. There is a chapter entitled Deus ex Machina. It’s pretty wild.

Miranda looks at him. “Do you think we wizards live so long because there is always more to learn?”

“Yes,” Ficino replies, without hesitation. “Everyone else comes to the end of what they want and is content to die. Kings and dukes weary of their responsibilities, rich men become jaded with gathering wealth, great-grandmothers tire of cooing over new babies, captains become bored with their campaigns and conquests, but we scholars never lose our thirst to learn and understand, and so we live on,” Miranda said wizards, but Ficino says scholars, for to Ficino the two are indistinguishable.

We get reacquainted with her favourite historical figures: Marsilio Ficino and Giovanni Pico della Mirandola who, like the nameless muse character in Or What You Will, have played many roles across her books (the Thessaly novels, Lent). This time, Ficino is a wizard and is friends with Miranda from Shakespeare’s The Tempest, and Orsino from Twelfth Night (also by the Bard) in a fictional fantasy Florence/Narnia called Illyria created by Sylvia where magic is real and it is always the Renaissance in perpetuity. But the breadth of Ms Walton’s references ranges further afield than that as she pulled deftly from the Bible, Tolkien, and Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion as well. On top of it all, Or What You Will also seems to aspire to be a history book of 14th century Florence, and a travelogue of present day Florence complete with reviews of the real dinner club Teatro del Sale and a gelato place called Perche no!… (which she also shilled for in My Real Children, through the guise of a fictional travelogue writer). In short, I wonder how any editor let Ms Walton get away with it all, and I still wonder how all of it came together and worked, because it did work for me.

Reading Or What You Will feels like listening, over wine, to the disjointed rambling of a very interesting friend talking about everything she loves, and you see vicariously the beauty of what she sees through her word pictures alone. And then, halfway into the third bottle, the conversation turns poignant and she shares with you her deepest thoughts about her life, her traumas, her feelings about God, and her impending death. It is not my favourite of her published works but it is very, very close.

Rating: 4.75/5 Naga Pearls

If you like what you are reading, maybe you can Buy Me a Coffee at ko-fi.com to keep this Naga caffeinated!

Published by A Naga of the Nusantara

A Naga is a divine dragon from Eastern Hindu-Buddhist tradition. The Nusantara is made up of nusa (island) and antara (between) and describes the Southeast Asian archipelago that includes Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and Papua New Guinea. This particular Naga is Malaysian, born and bred. He loves reading and hoarding books, and enjoys bothering humans with what he thinks of them.

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