Or What You Will is an utterly original novel about how stories are brought forth from Hugo, Nebula, and World Fantasy Award-winning author Jo Walton.
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 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 those 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 mortality altogether. All he has to do is convince her.
Whatever you think this book is going to be, you’re wrong.
Or at least, I was very wrong about this book. I was hoping… I’m not sure, exactly, but I was incredibly excited about the idea of a book about a muse. About the avatar of someone’s imagination, their creativity.
And it’s true that this is about a muse. But it’s not really about the muse.
To be honest, I really struggled with this one. I started it in March, when I received the arc, and just finished it now, in June. I got bored. Jo Walton’s writing tends to be slow and kind of luxurious, but here it feels pretty rambly. And in fairness I think that’s on purpose; the nameless muse narrates in first-person, and real people don’t speak perfectly and concisely all the time. They ramble a bit, they wander, they backtrack. It gives Or What You Will the sense that you really are being spoken to by a real person, which is kind of vital, because one of the very first things the narrative needs to do is convince the reader that the muse is a real person, something far more complicated than just a figment of Sylvia’s imagination.
Sylvia, of course, being the writer whose head the muse lives inside. The two are aware of each other; they talk to each other directly, although Sylvia is a little confused or dismayed by the muse’s insistence that he’s as real as she is. We’re not real in the same way, she tells him, seeming a little worried that he – the nameless muse is very much male – thinks that they are. But it’s pretty clear that he’s a lot more than a delusion, or an imaginary friend. As we get more and more of their story – their story, not just the book they’re writing together, but their entwined past together, the journey of Sylvia’s life and how intrinsic the muse has been to it – well. We talk about how writers need to write, storytellers need to tell stories, but this isn’t that. Their relationship, Sylvia’s and her muse, isn’t that.
It’s life or death.
And life or death is what Or What You Will revolves around: the muse doesn’t want to die when Sylvia does. The only solution, it seems, is for Sylvia not to die at all. But she lives in our world, the real world, where dying is (at least at this point in history) an inevitability. So how are they going to get around this?
I say ‘they’, but Sylvia’s not really in on the plan from the beginning. It’s more like she’s indulging the muse, letting him try this ridiculous thing. But bit by bit, she gets on board.
This is…a slow book. A meandering one. I’m not that sure I enjoyed it, but I kept turning the pages, because there’s something so…luxurious? About it. And that’s deliberate, the story Sylvia and her muse are writing is set in a world that froze during the Renaissance, and there’s a big deal made about the joyful artistic decadence of that time period, about the mindset of it. Sylvia is in Italy while she writes her book (the book, the one meant to defeat her death), and there’s so much…I want to call it hedonism, but that doesn’t seem quite right; it’s more that Sylvia is embracing all the pleasures available to her, the food and the culture and the art, revelling in it all but in a way that seems…not holy, not sanctimonious, but not gluttonous, either? It’s balanced on the line between, perfectly healthy and beautiful. It’s a quiet delight to read, which is as it should be, because it’s quiet delight that Walton is capturing in her writing.
There’s two stories going on, side by side; Sylvia’s in Italy, talking to her muse, and Dolly and Tish’s, the two Brits in Sylvia’s book who get swept into the world of one of her earlier books. I’ll be honest; I did not care about Dolly and Tish’s story. At all. It was scattered through with historical figures, and some from Shakespeare’s plays – like Miranda, Calibran, etc – and mostly seemed to exist at all to explain to the reader how the escaping-death thing was going to work. It was a lot of talking, a lot of telling. None of the characters appealed to me. I didn’t care. It was boring as heck with very contrived worldbuilding, and although that’s explained – Sylvia winces and talks about how she’d have done much better if she was crafting this fictional world ‘today’, rather than at the start of her career – it’s still pretty meh.
However, Sylvia’s own story is much more…grabbing. And emotional. Painful at times, but powerful, and rich, and moving. And happily, Or What You Will spends a lot more time with Sylvia and her muse than it does with Dolly and Tish, so it works out pretty okay.
This isn’t going on my favourites shelf; it’s certainly not my favourite of Walton’s works. But it’s a pretty solid book, and I think a lot of people will enjoy it, especially if you approach it looking for something slow and luxurious, rather than action-heavy and fast-paced.