Thanks to NetGalley and Tor Books for providing an ARC in exchange for an honest review.
Release Date: July 7, 2020
Synopsis: From the Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning author of Among Others, an utterly original novel about how stories are brought forth.
He has been too many things to count. He has been a dragon with a boy on his back. He has been a scholar, a warrior, a lover, and a thief. He has been dream and dreamer. He has been a god.
But “he” is in fact nothing more than a spark of an idea, a character in the mind of Sylvia Harrison, 73, award-winning author of thirty novels over forty years. He has played a part in most of novels, and in the recesses of her mind, Sylvia has conversed with him for years.
But Sylvia won’t live forever, any more than any human does. And he’s trapped inside her cave of bone, her hollow of skull. When she dies, so will he.
Now Sylvia is starting a new novel, a fantasy for adult readers, set in Thalia, the Florence-resembling imaginary city that was the setting for a successful YA trilogy she published decades before. Of course he’s got a part in it. But he also has a notion. He thinks he knows how he and Sylvia can step off the wheel of immortality altogether. All he has to do is convince her.
I absolutely LOVED Or What You Will, but I have to caution that this isn’t a book for everyone. If I say this is a book for serious readers who live and breathe books, I hope I’m not coming off as a condescending, pretentious snoot. It’s just that you’re not a big time reader, particularly of the fantasy genre, there’s a lot that will just fly by you. Also, if you’re not familiar with Shakespeare’s The Tempest and Twelfth Night, there’s going to be even more you’ll miss out on. Even Walton’s title harkens back to the full title of Twelfth Night which was Twelfth Night, Or What You Will.
The novel is really two stories woven together. There’s Sylvia’s story, where we learn everything about her from her childhood, her marriages, and her time in Florence. The second is the new story she’s working on which is a fantasy version of Florence called Illyria, and it’s where Shakespeare’s characters come into play. While I enjoyed the imaginative world building of Sylvia’s new creation, my favorite chapters are the ones featuring the unnamed Narrator who began as Sylvia’s childhood imaginary friend, and is now her muse as well as the starring character in all her novels. Their discussions are intimate, playful, and utterly fascinating and I felt as though he knew her better than she knew herself at times. Whenever the book moved back to Illyria, I found myself impatiently wanting to get back to the Narrator and Sylvia.
In the end, Or What You Will is one of the most meta of meta fiction novels I’ve ever read. It’s a sumptuous ode to readers and writers, Shakespeare, and the beautiful city of Florence. It’s a tale with characters I will not forget anytime soon. This is my first book by Jo Walton, but it’s apparent to me that she is a consummate storyteller and I’m looking forward to reading her other books. I’m just going to finish by saying that if you choose to pick this up, be prepared for a reading experience quite unlike any you’ve had before.