Book Review: Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

Book Review: Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

Or What You Will by Jo Walton
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I received a copy of this book from the publisher (Tor) and NetGalley in exchange for an honest review.

“I have been a word on the tongue. I have been a word on the page. And I hope I will be again.”

Or What You Will blew me away from the very first page. The last time I got this excited over the first paragraphs of a book was when I read The Ten Thousand Doors of January, which ended up being my favorite book of 2019. My pulse actually sped up as I read, and I had to stop and go back and reread those first few paragraphs because they were just so gorgeous. I had read passages to my husband and frantically text my fellow Novel Notions besties about how excited I was before I even finished that first chapter. And I continued to deeply appreciate the writing all the way through, and highlighted and annotated an incredible number of passages. But after such a wonderful beginning, things went from beautiful literary fiction to an unexpected accounting of the art scene of Renaissance Florence. I mean, I have no problem at all with the topic but that shift came out of nowhere. I would say it was jarring if the air of the novel wasn’t so meandering. And then there were a ton of Shakespearean characters added into the mix, which was surprising. But the book never really came back to what I loved so much in those first few pages, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I was incredibly disappointed by that decision on Walton’s part.

“What am I? What am I? Figment, fakement, fragment, furious fancy-free form.”

This is a book that doesn’t hold your hand. Walton expects readers to be familiar with certain histories and literary works and, if they flounder, that’s not really her problem, is it? I would strongly advice anyone interested in reading this book who has no Shakespearean exposure to at least find summaries of Twelfth Night and The Tempest and read those before diving into Or What You Will. There are micro-sequels to both plays in the pages of this book, and those will make far more sense if you have an idea of what said plays are about and who their characters are. Said sequels also tie the two plays together in interesting ways. I love the idea of these tales continuing on after the curtain closes, and I love even more the idea of those stories continuing on in a world parallel to ours where magic is real and the Renaissance never ended. But these well worn characters underwent little new development in my opinion, regardless of their near eternal life in this magical world. They continued on without really moving forward, though I feel that might have been the point.

“Imagine that power, to make worlds! I can make and shape and take no worlds. I slide myself into the worlds I am given and find myself, frame myself, tame myself into the space there where I can see to be me.”

The concept of telling a story from a fictional character’s perspective while they’re inside their author’s head and aware of that fact is an interesting one. As is this eternal, magical Renaissance in a Florence populated with Shakespearean casts and real, historical artists and scholars. Both stories had promise but, in my opinion, mixed about as well as oil and water. There was a lack of continuity that was distracting every time the story flipped from the real world to the fictional world. Sylvia, who is the author of the fictional world and whose mind is the dwelling place of the nameless narrator, has a very interesting back story. But I felt that her story and the book she was writing never did fully cohere, despite that being the point of the novel.

“I’d want the stars to be destinations, not destiny.”

This book is one of the most meta, experimental novels I’ve read in recent memory. The ideas were wonderful, and the narrative went in enough different directions to make heads spin. But the amount of fourth-wall breaking and self commentary came across as self-indulgent instead of endearing. The book was brief, at little more than 300 pages, but it felt exhaustingly labyrinthine. The writing was exquisite and the ideas unique, but I had a hard time making myself pick this little book up. I also found myself disappointed in the ending. While the entire book was building toward a particular outcome, that final scene was so brief as to feel woefully abridged and ultimately unsatisfying. However, the quality of the writing and the social commentary woven into the narrative about the fantasy genre and religion and the world as a whole saved the book for me. I enjoyed having a chance to peer so deeply into the mind of both the author of this book and the author in the book.

“There’s no difference between fairy tales and war stories… Pah. All stories start both ways. There’s no difference between once upon a time, and believe me, because I was there and still bear the scars. There are scars in everyone’s stories…”

I’m sure Or What You Will shall become a new favorite for many, and I deeply regret that I’m not part of that number. However, I look forward to trying more of Walton’s work, as she is a brilliant wordsmith whose prose I can’t wait to sample again. Even though I didn’t love this particular story, I deeply respect what Walton both attempted and was able to do in the writing of it. Hopefully I’ll find a book or multiple books in her catalogue that will ring as true to me as Sylvia’s books did for her fictitious fanbase in this novel.

All quotes above were taken from an uncorrected proof and are subject to change upon publication.

Publication date: July 7, 2020

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