Reviews

Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

leafelf's review against another edition

Go to review page

informative reflective slow-paced
  • Plot- or character-driven? Character
  • Strong character development? Yes
  • Loveable characters? Yes
  • Flaws of characters a main focus? Yes

5.0

bowienerd_82's review against another edition

Go to review page

4.0

Strange, beautiful, clever, multi-layered, metatextual, and full of digressions on all sorts of interesting and wonderful things. It's an homage to Florence and the Renaissance, it's a sort of fantasy sequel to [b:Twelfth Night|1625|Twelfth Night|William Shakespeare|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1561384026l/1625._SY75_.jpg|3267921] and [b:The Tempest|12985|The Tempest|William Shakespeare|https://i.gr-assets.com/images/S/compressed.photo.goodreads.com/books/1546081115l/12985._SY75_.jpg|1359590], it's a book about writing and the creative process, it's a book about reading and loving books, it's a meditation on death and mortality.

This seems to be a book that most people either love or hate, based on the reviews I've seen. It's not a normal, linear story, and as above, it's got a lot going on, but I really enjoyed it, and it really made me want to back and visit Florence again.

woahno's review against another edition

Go to review page

5.0

About six months ago I read Among Others and positively loved it. At the time I even opined not reading it sooner or trying out some of Jo Walton's other works. I have since purchased a fair amount of Walton's novels. My thinking was that I enjoyed Among Others so much that I needed to support the author more than I usually would. Usually, when I find a five star read I buy a copy of the book and start looking out for new releases. Luckily for me there is a significant back catalog of novels to dive into and in this case, purchase. I then had to decide where to start with this newly acquired stack and I landed on the newest novel. For me, books about books are a favorite and that is what broke the five way tie. It is with that enthusiasm and high bar of investment and expectation that I dove into Or What You Will.

I was in no way prepared, however, for the concept of this work. It is wholly unique to my reading experiences. It is an odd conundrum, I find. The blurb does well explaining it but it is only the tip of the iceberg so to speak. There are stories within stories within stories, there is metacommentary galore, there is blending from classic works, and there are a multitude of perspective changes. It is actually more than that, not only do the point of views change and flow into one another, chapter by chapter, but there are also completely separate narratives. It is complex to say the least and I struggle to adequately describe it. Depending on which chapter you open to in the book you could have a fantasy novel, or a historical text, or perhaps a historical fiction or even a historical fantasy in your hands. There was so much going on that I know that I didn't catch everything. I also know that I was blown away by the concept and was happy to be swept up in the many facets of this story.

As I continue my attempt to put my reading experience of this wonderfully bizarre book into words I have decided to simply insert some quotes from the beginning of the novel here:
"Let me tell you—what, show you, you say? I can’t show you anything. This isn’t a picture book. It’s all telling here. We only have words between us. But let me tell you, so you may, if you choose, weigh the qualities of different silences."
"Trust me now, forget your self-consciousness, the consciousness of your separate solid self that I deliberately aroused, let yourself sink down beneath the warm weight of the story I am telling you. Trust me, it’ll be much more interesting than her story about a dead horse."
This quote, told to us by our enigmatic narrator, was a helpful reminder to me to surrender myself to the story. Something I have been working on a lot this year. It reminds me of another quote from C.S. Lewis that I read earlier in 2020.
“The first demand any work of any art makes upon us is surrender. Look. Listen. Receive. Get yourself out of the way. (There is no good asking first whether the work before you deserves such a surrender, for until you have surrendered you cannot possibly find out.)”
From these two quotes I think it becomes obvious how Or What You Will was the right fit for me personally. I also think it gives a good, non-spoilery example of what can be expected out of this novel. Being promptly told this in the first 25 pages is exactly what I mean by metacommentary. And it comes in a chapter titled "Direct Address", with a fourth wall break. It is also right after a short diatribe on the use of second person narrative. I was laughing out loud while also being astonished at the ambition and direction of the narrative. It only got better from there.

I think that this novel will be difficult to recommend to a lot of readers. It is certainly not for everyone. The jumping around and meandering nature of the plot I can see losing a fair amount of people. However, for those readers that love books about books, or stories with heaps of metacommentary, or fans of Shakespeare that always wanted a sequel to Twelfth Night (and The Tempest... and for them to be combined somehow) this book will delight and surprise. Or at least it did for me.

bookish_selkie's review against another edition

Go to review page

4.0

Or What You Will was one of my first forays into metafiction and I absolutely loved it. Combined with Shakespeare? Incredible. While reading, I felt that I was peeking over Walton’s shoulder, getting a master class on writing, and watching the threads of a story being woven right before my eyes. This is a story filled with succinct observations, fantastic characters, and reflective moments. I do think you will probably get more out of this story if you are familiar with The Tempest, Twelfth Night, or have an interest in reading about the craft of storytelling.

This isn't a casual novel- it is definitely a commitment, a choice. It’s not going to be everyone’s cup of tea, but it very much was mine. Or What You Will is creative, original, and has a unique story to tell. I’m looking forward to re-reading this book, as it is full of rich details and stunning descriptions. This was the first book I’ve read from Jo Walton, but it won’t be my last.

Or What You Will releases on July 7, 2020. Thank you to Jo Walton, Tor Books, and Netgalley for a free ARC of this book in exchange for an honest review.

mariocomputer's review against another edition

Go to review page

4.0

I've never read a book like this one. There's an author, there's her story, and there's another entity telling us the story of both. The author character shares some things in common with Jo Walton, but is also very obviously not Walton at all. And because it's Jo Walton, it's crammed full of Renaissance and modern Florence (Firenze). She has a gift of sharing her passions in such a compelling way. I want to visit Florence now (whenever we can travel again).

cdavidcousins's review against another edition

Go to review page

5.0

Sylvia Harrison is an award winning novelist who has written thirty novels over forty years and, now, at 73, seeks solace from her impending death by taking a trip to Florence. She takes meals for one at restaurants, but she never eats alone. Within her, with its own spark and its own plan, is her muse, her spark of ideas that she has embodied in almost all her novels as a character…a scholar, a dragon, a warrior, a lover, a thief…a god. It has no name but no wish to die and it thinks it has a way to save them both.
This is the premise of a novel of intricate, detailed, lovingly crafted prose that sucks you in despite the absurd premise.
It is a story of a life well lived, in every sense, and a story of hope for stories to come.

spoerk's review against another edition

Go to review page

3.0

Not my favorite Jo Walton novel, but I enjoyed it.
Honestly, though, I wish it was longer... I wanted to know a little bit more about some of the characters, and the world the author had built over her career.

(let's hope this isn't autobiographical...)

celeste57's review against another edition

Go to review page

3.0

Actual rating: 3.5 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.

You can find this review and more at Novel Notions.

caviglia_jr's review against another edition

Go to review page

4.0

I was really iffy about this one and then in the last third it really took hold. It’s a weird meta novel about creation, death, storytelling, Shakespeare’s imagined Italy, Renaissance Florence and practically a travel guide to current (before times) Florence. It’s a meta fantasy about a Canadian sci fi/fantasy writer who is not Jo Walton (though it’s sort of Jo Walton), with elements of Twelth Night and the Tempest. I kept thinking it was one sort of novel, then it wasn’t. By the end I was incredibly moved.

venneh's review against another edition

Go to review page

5.0

This is so unbelievably my kind of meta and retelling that I’m having difficulty finding words for it, and how much I love what Walton has done here. Telling you what this is technically a retelling of is a big enough spoiler that I won’t say it, but the bricks of it are laid early on. This feels like a book I’m probably going to end up going back to again, just to marvel at how it all comes together. And centering the story on the author (going to use her name to avoid confusion, Sylvia)’s muse and co-conspirator makes the telling of the story to ensure she won’t die, and the telling of the author’s story herself that much more intriguing. Yes, there is a book in a book. Yes, our narrator has no name. Yes, there is gratuitous Shakespeare. But the way that ideas Sylvia had at the beginning of her writing career are interrogated and eventually change in the world she’s made feels like Walton being open about her own growth as a writer. And the way the book in a book unfolds in parallel to us learning Sylvia’s story is extremely well done and highlights things about Sylvia herself. The love for Florence shines through brilliantly too. I wasn’t sure what I was getting into when I started this, but this feels like a masterwork in the best way. Get this when it comes out.