Or What You Will, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com, BookShop, or Barnes & Noble

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – July 7, 2020

Summary: 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.

Thoughts: Sometimes I think I know what I’m in for when it comes to Jo Walton novels. Other times, I get something that leaves me reeling, not so much exceeding my expectations as being something I didn’t quite expect in the first place. I expected a straightforward if thought-provoking novel about, well, exactly what it says in the summary. However odd that concept might be. What I got, however, was a story that merged 2 separate stories, breaking the fourth wall, a bit of non-linear narrative. It asked questions about the very nature of creativity and reality, gave no concrete answers, and left me wondering if the whole thing was a semi-fictional confession of Walton’s, because this book uses lines from some of Walton’s previous novels with the heavy implication that they’re lines from Sylvia’s novels, or possibly that the story itself is a tongue-in-cheek acknowledgement that it’s self-aware enough to know it’s a story written by the same author who wrote those lines to begin with.

See what I mean when I said that I didn’t quite get what I expected here?

The story is narrated to us by a voice inside Sylvia’s head, a sort of muse, a spirit of creativity, only those words don’t quite seem to encompass the whole of what that character is. He’s had multiple different roles in Sylvia’s works, an aspect of himself put into characters so that he experiences what they experience, live what those characters live in Sylvia’s stories. At the same time, he’s a distinct enough presence that Sylvia converses with him her aloud and him responding in her mind, since that’s where he lives. It reminded me of some aspects of Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life, only with a far more personal feel to it. When he starts to suspect that Sylvia is dying, he comes to the realization that he too will die, living in her head as he does, and seeks to find a way to bring Sylvia into her own created world, a place where death and life only come if people will it to, so that they might both survive.

And that’s meant quite literally, not in the sense of an author and their characters living on so long as people still read the words they wrote and the stories they live in. Sylvia will be drawn into her fantasy world of Illyria, where she is already known somewhat as a representation of the goddess Hekate. Illyria itself is already a world primed for that sort of crossover, since it is based a good deal on real-world places and literature, with stories of people traveling between worlds every now and then. So is the case with Tish and Dolly, two people from the 19th century who find themselves teleported into Illyria, and who must learn to navigate the strange mix of new and old in order to thrive, in addition to playing an integral role in what the gods themselves have planned for Illyria.

The gods, of course, being Sylvia and the narrator of the novel, the spirit in her mind.

While all this goes on, Sylvia must continue to live her life in the real world, going for walks around Florence, eating good food, dealing with plumbers, writing the latest and last story of Illyria. For much of the novel she has no idea what the spirit in her mind is planning, because he is the narrator to us, the reader, and not she. And as readers who are repeatedly addressed, we too become part of the story, albeit a more passive part than others.

Though a section near the end made me wonder if everything was going to go full Neverending Story and demand that the reader themselves give the narrator a new name so he could keep on living…

I love that Walton grabs hold of an idea that most creative types have talked about, the idea of characters being in our minds and talking back to us or demanding that they do what they want and not what we want, and just runs with it! Writer friends, how many times have you experienced a character needing to do something for the sake of the story, only to have them go, “Nah, I’ma do this instead,” only to leave you going, “Well that’s not what I planned for,” in their wake? It’s a long-standing joke at this point, and in this novel, it’s delightfully literal, a character that can be many characters, distinct from the author in whose mind they live, doing what they will regardless of author intent. I love how relatable this concept is, and how it’s used here.

Or What You Will is a brilliant multi-layered story that I suspect will provoke something very similar to Among Others. Every time I reread Among Others, some new detail pops out at me, something I missed before and am not sure how I missed it, and sometimes I think the different mood or situation I’m in affects what I see in novels. What I missed before because it wasn’t that important to my mentality at the time suddenly jumps out upon rereading, a piece that was always there but now I’m better primed to see it, or perhaps it just means more at certain times and that’s why I see it more clearly. Or What You Will is so full of questions and thought experiments and rich details that I think the same thing will happen, that new details will jump out during rereadings, adding new perspectives to the story, or just meaning something different on a purely personal level. Similar to Ficino’s augury when he looks out from behind Sylvia’s eyes, counting cars and birds and divining meaning from the mundane, looking for answers in something that doesn’t really offer answers but instead offers imagery that can be interpreted, the spark that ignites and helps guide us down a path. Nothing is new, nothing has any meaning that it didn’t have before, but at certain times, with certain ways of thinking, things can be more meaningful to a person.

If you’re a fan of Walton’s prior novels, especially things like Among Others, My Real Children, or the Thessaly trilogy, then you’ll feel right at home reading Or What You Will. Many of the hallmarks I’ve come to expect of Walton’s writing are here, the passion for certain subjects, the difficult real-life experiences like strained relationships with partners or parents, and while I’m sure a lot of the Shakespearean and Florentine references escape me (or else mean less to me than I’m sure they do to others), the novel is no less enjoyable for my ignorance, and it brought me a step closer to something, somewhere, that I may never get the chance to experience. It’s a trip to multiple worlds, real and imagined, past and present, painful and beautiful. It’s not a novel that I think will appeal to everyone, or even most people, but those who enjoy a unique novel that makes you contemplate reality and creativity and consequences will find a true gem here.

(Book received in exchange for an honest review.)

Starlings, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 23, 2018

Summary: In this intimate first collection from award-winning novelist Jo Walton ( Among Others , The King’s Peace , Necessity ) are captivating glimpses of her subtle myths and wholly reinvented realities. An ancient Eritrean coin uncovers the secrets of lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do almost nothing. A search engine logically proceeds down the path of an existential crisis. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with ingenuity, bad poetry, and the aid of the Queen of Cats. Through eclectic stories, intriguing vignettes, inspired poetry, and more, Walton soars with humans, machines, and more than a hint of magic.

Review: It’s no secret at this point that I’m a huge fan of Jo Walton’s work, and I pretty much devour any of her writing that I can get my hands on. Starlings is her first collection of short fiction (and a few poems), and while she says she’s no good at that form of story-telling, I’d have to disagree. I wouldn’t say that the stories in Starlings is as good as some of her longer works, mind you, but that’s a far cry from not being good at all.

Like with any collection of short fiction, be it from multiple authors or just one, some pieces I like more than others. That’s to be expected, any as I say in just about any review of anthologies or collections, a lot of it comes down to personal taste rather than an indication of quality. I think the best example of this for me was the story, The Panda Coin, which is largely a collection of snippets from a multitude of different perspectives, detailing the happenings of people who have a particular coin in their possession at the time. Though not a hugely original idea, it was still well-written and interesting to see the diverse cast of characters that the coin passes to and from over time, but in the end it really didn’t stick with me as being one of the more memorable pieces. Just wasn’t to my taste, I suppose.

Others, though, absolutely were to my taste, and three in particular really made a lasting impression on me. A Burden Shared, for instance, features a mother who uses technology to take her daughter’s pain so that her daughter can better navigate through life without being beaten down by disability. It’s an exploration of the lengths that a parent will go to, and that they feel they ought to go to, in order to give their child the best chance at a successful life. But in doing so, the mother overlooks pain of her own that signals deadly illness in her own body, thinking it to be a sign of something wrong with her daughter rather than her own body’s way of communicating that there’s a problem. To me, it was a story not just of parental sacrifice, but a subtle warning about giving too much of ourselves and overlooking our own issues in the process of trying to make things better for someone else.

Turnover was the story of a generation ship, filled with people on their way to another planet. Being a generation ship, though, some people there had never experienced life outside the ship, and as such, a culture had developed that was rather specific to ship life, with art and expression and lifestyles that simply wouldn’t be possible once the ship arrived at their destination. It was a piece that really got me thinking about culture and intent, and how what we seek now isn’t necessarily going to be what the next generation seeks, even if our intent is to give them what we think they will want. Cultures and subcultures spring up around us all the time, with goals that are just as valid and worthwhile as the goals of the people who came before. Turnover questions the value of multi-generational intent and asks us whether it’s better to let some people go their own way even if that goes against the original plan, if those people don’t want to be part of a plan they had no say in.

But I think my favourite story in the whole collection was Relentlessly Mundane, which is about three people who once went to another world and saved it from certain doom. With their task complete, they returned to this world, and now have to live the rest of their lives as mundanely as the rest of us. Only it’s harder for them, because they know they were saviours in another world, special and lauded and with abilities that just don’t exist here, and so there’s a sense of trying and failing to recapture one’s glory days, making pale reflections of something to remind you that you were once great, once a hero, and now you’re just another face in the crowd. The story ends with them possibly being given the chance to become somebody here, too, or to help other people become somebodies elsewhere, which is an uplifting note to be sure, but what stuck with me the most was the sense of faded potential. Most of the time people express that at the end of life, but the characters in Relentlessly Mundane were adults in their prime, and already feeling like the best parts of their lives were over because they had a taste of glory and now that taste is just a memory. It really resonated with me, as did the pervasive feeling that where the characters are isn’t where they want to be, where they feel they should be.

Walton certainly does have skill at evoking and capturing emotions that I don’t always quite realize are within me until I see them laid bare on paper. I’ve only encountered a few authors who have done that, and she is most definitely one of them.

While there were some phenomenal stories within this collection, it’s not one that I feel I can really recommend to general SFF fans. This one’s more for people who are already fans of Walton’s work and want to see more of what she can do with a different medium. If you do like her writing, then absolutely pick up a copy of Starlings and dive into her collection of thought experiments with glee, the way I did. If you haven’t encountered her work before, though, this isn’t the best way to do it, and I’d recommend passing on it until you know if you like what she does, first.

(Received in exchange for review.)

December Wrap-Up

Another month down!

Other Stuff

Remember how last month I did a bunch of writing, and said I planned on doing the same in December?

…Yeah, that didn’t happen. I wrote absolutely nothing of note in December. And to a degree I can say that life just got in the way (the holidays, my roommate’s aunt passing away), but really, it was all down to general laziness plus a lack of inspiration. I just didn’t feel like actually sitting down and writing anything.

Which I think is something I’m going to have to get over, in a big way, if I ever want to actually accomplish things.

So December was a bust, in that sense. I did, however, meet my goal of reading 100 books this year, which is something, and I made some progress on a future project that I will probably unveil within a month or so (Super Sekrit Project is super sekrit), so it’s not like the month was a waste. Just not very productive when it comes to writing.

But with that said, on to the books that kept me entertained in December!

The Books

Servants of the Storm, by Delilah S Dawson
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: Dovey learns that demons lurk in places other than the dark corners of her mind in this southern gothic fantasy from the author of the Blud series.

A year ago, Hurricane Josephine swept through Savannah, Georgia, leaving behind nothing but death and destruction—and taking the life of Dovey’s best friend, Carly. Since that night, Dovey has been in a medicated haze, numb to everything around her.

But recently she’s started to believe she’s seeing things that can’t be real…including Carly at their favorite café. Determined to learn the truth, Dovey stops taking her pills. And the world that opens up to her is unlike anything she could have imagined.

As Dovey slips deeper into the shadowy corners of Savannah—where the dark and horrifying secrets lurk—she learns that the storm that destroyed her city and stole her friend was much more than a force of nature. And now the sinister beings truly responsible are out to finish what they started.

Review: This book managed to be both what I expected and yet transcend my expectations at the same time, which is impressive enough in its own right. It starts out seeming like Dovey’s experiences are related to mental illness, that taking herself off the antipsychotics she was prescribed after severe trauma is is making her see what isn’t there while making her think that demons and ghosts are real and everyone else is being drugged into compliance. Only then it seems like that is reality, that Dovey has to fight demons in order to free her friend’s soul from servitude, and demons really are messing with everyone else’s perceptions.

Then the ending flips it all on its head and makes you wonder which side really is true after all, whether Dovey was caught in her psychosis or whether it’s demons after all. Because toward the end, things started to go a little bit odd, bordering on over the top, and it was like reality did start to slide a little bit and even the twisted things you’re sure of become uncertain and tenuous. Was that Carly’s mental state backsliding further because she’d been off her medication for so long, or is there so much more to the whole story than the book lets on?

The writing’s great, the pacing is wonderful, and the characters very believable, especially for a YA novel. But the true gem for me was in not knowing what was real. It straddles the line between YA horror and a chilling presentation of someone losing touch with reality, managing to come across as both at once, and I think it’s seriously underrated. Definitely a book to keep an eye out for if you like solving mysteries and looking below the surface of things.

Domnall and the Borrowed Child, by Sylvia Spruck Wrigley
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: The best and bravest faeries fell in the war against the Sluagh, and now the Council is packed with idiots and cowards. Domnall is old, aching, and as cranky as they come, but as much as he’d like to retire, he’s the best scout the Sithein court has left.

When a fae child falls deathly ill, Domnall knows he’s the only one who can get her the medicine she needs: Mother’s milk. The old scout will face cunning humans, hungry wolves, and uncooperative sheep, to say nothing of his fellow fae!

Review: It’s not that this story is bad. Far from it; it was pretty entertaining, with some good humour, an interesting situation, and some creativity in not only presenting the problem at hand but also in the characters trying to figure out how to solve it when luck isn’t on their side and things turn sour.

But it’s so very short, and there’s so little world-building to it. The back-of-the-book summary tells you that there was a war against the Sluagh, and that’s why there are so few faeries left, which is why Domnall, of all people, is chosen to switch a fae child with a human baby when she falls ill, since only mother’s milk can save the child and people desperately want her saved. As for what’s presented in the book? Cut out the whole “war against the Sluagh and that’s why there are so few people left.” There are hints made, but nothing solid, because the story is about one particular post-war event, not what happened to society after the war, so it feels in some way like you’re getting only half of the story. It’s one thing to throw a reader right into the thick of things, but when that happens, the story usually starts with an action scene (not a guy wandering through the bluebells until he’s called back because someone wants to give him a task), and even then the backstory is usually revealed as we go. Not so much here. I felt a lot like this was a short story connected to some other series I was meant to be familiar with first.

That being said, the writing is good, and I did enjoy the story and the creativity shown in playing with typical faerie lore. But it didn’t sit right with me that I had to rely on the book’s synopsis to provide all the book’s backstory. It sounds more exciting than it was. If you’re looking for an action-packed fae adventure, this isn’t the place to find it. If you’re looking for a fae story with good humour and an interesting problem and solution, however, then Domnall and the Borrowed Child is definitely worth the read.

(Received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Builders, by Daniel Polansky
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: A missing eye.
A broken wing.
A stolen country.

The last job didn’t end well.

Years go by, and scars fade, but memories only fester. For the animals of the Captain’s company, survival has meant keeping a low profile, building a new life, and trying to forget the war they lost. But now the Captain’s whiskers are twitching at the idea of evening the score.

Review: If I were to try and sum up this novella in one sentence, I’d do it thusly: Imagine Redwall, only with guns, tons of violence, and in which almost everybody dies. It’s incredibly fast-paced, filled with short chapters that keep things rolling along almost quicker than you can keep up with (some chapters are merely a few paragraphs long), extremely violent, and with some masterful world-building that left me wanting to see more.

You’ve got a story full of anthropomorphic animals with axes to grind, mentions of real-world countries but definitely not real-world situations, and it’s such an interesting setup that I found myself a bit disappointed that this was only a novella and not a full-length novel. But one of the story’s strength, the break-neck pacing, was clearly better suited to something short rather than long, and I wouldn’t want to see that sacrificed just for the sake of spending more time with the story.

It’s not an idea that hasn’t been done before, but the dark approach to animal-based fantasy still isn’t common, and it keeps the idea fresh and interesting. Definitely worth looking into if you enjoy quick dark fantasy reads with something a little bit different. Full of revenge, very brutal, and very fun.

(Received in exchange for an honest review.)

The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, by Catherynne M Valente
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: Twelve-year-old September lives in Omaha, and used to have an ordinary life, until her father went to war and her mother went to work. One day, September is met at her kitchen window by a Green Wind (taking the form of a gentleman in a green jacket), who invites her on an adventure, implying that her help is needed in Fairyland. The new Marquess is unpredictable and fickle, and also not much older than September. Only September can retrieve a talisman the Marquess wants from the enchanted woods, and if she doesn’t . . . then the Marquess will make life impossible for the inhabitants of Fairyland. September is already making new friends, including a book-loving Wyvern and a mysterious boy named Saturday.

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, by Catherynne M Valente
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: September has longed to return to Fairyland after her first adventure there. And when she finally does, she learns that its inhabitants have been losing their shadows―and their magic―to the world of Fairyland Below. This underworld has a new ruler: Halloween, the Hollow Queen, who is September’s shadow. And Halloween does not want to give Fairyland’s shadows back.

Fans of Valente’s bestselling, first Fairyland book will revel in the lush setting, characters, and language of September’s journey in The Girl Who Fell Beneath Fairyland and Led the Revels There, all brought to life by fine artist Ana Juan. Readers will also welcome back good friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. But in Fairyland Below, even the best of friends aren’t always what they seem…

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Girl Who Soared Over Fairyland and Cut the Moon in Two, by Catherynne M Valente
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: September misses Fairyland and her friends Ell, the Wyverary, and the boy Saturday. She longs to leave the routines of home, and embark on a new adventure. Little does she know that this time, she will be spirited away to the moon, reunited with her friends, and find herself faced with saving Fairyland from a moon-Yeti with great and mysterious powers.

Review: I didn’t like this Fairyland book as much as I liked the first two, but it wasn’t by much. It was a bit of a mixed bag for me, really, with some parts being awesome and others being rather lackluster, especially compared to the previous two books in the series.

For instance, I love how the whole book is about September growing up. She’s passed into that stage of life that’s beyond childhood but isn’t quite at adulthood, where things change all over the place and people are often left not knowing what to do or where they fit in the world. And Valente captured this so well, with topics ranging from September worrying that she’d no longer be able to visit Fairyland now that she’s growing up, to just what “growing up” actually means. I loved how it was presented more like a a confusing adventure than something to be scared of and that means you’re going to lose everything you hold dear.

For me, though, the drawback is that the plot felt so… all over the place. September’s given another quest, and she goes through the motions, but it felt like this book lacked a lot of the magic and wonder of the books that came before it. There were new discoveries and a lot of the usual sensible nonsense that I like about this series, but it seemed bland, somehow, and I can’t quite put my finger on exactly what it was that gave me this impression. It definitely had some wonderful things in it, but it really wasn’t my favourite.

Maybe that says more about my own adolescence than it does about the book itself…

The Boy Who Lost Fairyland, by Catherynne M Valente
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: When a young troll named Hawthorn is stolen from Fairyland by the Red Wind, he becomes a changeling-a human boy-in the strange city of Chicago, a place no less bizarre and magical than Fairyland. Left with a human family, Hawthorn struggles with his troll nature and his changeling fate, while attending school and learning about human kindnesses-and un-kindnesses.

Review: Really, I think this may be the best Fairyland book yet! Rather than focusing on September as the other books did, this one starts out with Hawthorn, a troll child who is whisked away to our world to live as a Changeling. The early parts of the novel mirror The Girl Who Circumnavigated Fairyland in a Ship of Her Own Making, similar actions and dialogue and jokes made in the early parts of that first book reappear now from Hawthorn’s perspective, making a wonderful parallel between two children taken from their lives to live somewhere else and do things that neither of them could possibly comprehend.

But what really stole the show for me in this book was the way Hawthorn, living as Thomas Rood, struggles to live with his troll nature while at the same time forgetting who he was while he lived in Fairyland. He has trouble dealing with the things most children take for granted. He relates to people in strange ways. His father regards him as Not Normal. His story is a reach-out for any child who isn’t neurotypical, who struggles to understand why the rules of the world and of other people don’t mesh with the rules that exist in one’s own head and heart. I never thought I’d be able to say that I related so well to a troll boy, but there you have it. Valente works magic with words to have this come across clearly, powerfully, and it left an impact.

For the curious, the story does pick up with September toward the end, so it’s not as though this was an utter departure from the overarching story that ties the whole series together. And it ties in nicely with what happened at the end of the previous novel, which made that feel finally complete and not so much like a haphazard half-story. But as good as that was, it was still extremely refreshing to have the new perspective, so different to September’s and yet so similar, and I loved that approach. The humour was fantastic, the commentary on society brilliant, and it definitely renewed my interest in the series.

My Real Children, by Jo Walton
Buy from Amazon.com or B&N

Summary: It’s 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. “Confused today,” read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know-what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.

Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War-those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history; each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. Jo Walton’s My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

Review: Reread; full review here.

The Philosopher Kings, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N or Indiebound

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – June 30, 2015

Summary: Philosopher Kings, a tale of gods and humans, and the surprising things they have to learn from one another. Twenty years have elapsed since the events of The Just City. The City, founded by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, organized on the principles espoused in Plato’s Republic and populated by people from all eras of human history, has now split into five cities, and low-level armed conflict between them is not unheard-of.

The god Apollo, living (by his own choice) a human life as “Pythias” in the City, his true identity known only to a few, is now married and the father of several children. But a tragic loss causes him to become consumed with the desire for revenge. Being Apollo, he goes handling it in a seemingly rational and systematic way, but it’s evident, particularly to his precocious daughter Arete, that he is unhinged with grief.

Along with Arete and several of his sons, plus a boatload of other volunteers–including the now fantastically aged Marsilio Ficino, the great humanist of Renaissance Florence–Pythias/Apollo goes sailing into the mysterious Eastern Mediterranean of pre-antiquity to see what they can find—possibly the man who may have caused his great grief, possibly communities of the earliest people to call themselves “Greek.” What Apollo, his daughter, and the rest of the expedition will discover…will change everything.

Thoughts: Sequel to The Just City, a book which blew me away when I first read it, The Philosopher Kings does exactly the same thing, and just as cheerfully. The first book of the series could stand on its own, and very steadily, without the need for a sequel. The story was complete, or at least complete enough that it didn’t feel unfinished in the slightest. However, it seems there was more of the story to be told after all, and The Philosopher Kings picks up some years after the end of the first book. The debate between Sokrates and Athene has become known as the Last Debate. The city has split, and 4 other cities have been formed, each attempting to build their ideal home according to Plato’s laws but with their own interpretation. Raids for art have become common, each city wanting their share of the time-rescued art and no other city prepared to give up what they have.

Thanks to the art raids, Simmea, one of the characters we see grow up in the Just City in the first book, someone who devoted her life to excellence as best she knew it, has been killed. Apollo, in his mortal guise as Pythias, vows revenge against the person he thinks orchestrated the attack: Kebes, a malcontent who left the Just City some years back, and who has long expressed his hate for the City and what it stands for. Together with his children, he sets out on a journey to get his revenge, and along the way discovers that the Republic experiment has reached further than anyone intended.

All of the things I loved about the first book make a return here. The thought-provoking debates, the unique and interesting characters, the expression of diversity amongst people who are still united for a common goal. Walton juggles many balls here, and does it all so well. The story of Pythias and his children seeking revenge on Kebes and finding other settlements that have been influenced by Athene’s plans would make an interesting enough story all on its own. Then you throw in the coming-of-age subplot with Arete, not only as she goes from child to ephebe, but also as she and her brothers discover that they have heroic souls, complete with a variety of divine powers, and they must decide whether to develop those powers and embrace that aspect of their heritage or to keep it hidden. Roll that all up into a ball with fantastic philosophical debates, and you get something that’s highly intelligent and will appeal to those with a keen mind.

I suppose this book falls under the category of “literary SFF,” as does The Just City. There are definitely some fantastical elements to it all. Deities bringing together people from multiple different times and places. Sentience and art arising in robotic workers. Everything that was already established beforehand stays true here. The only new element, really, is Pythias’s children and the nature of their souls, but even that is mostly a frame upon which to drape philosophy and questions. It does serve to advance the story, though in small ways rather than huge ones. Arete can detect when someone is lying, which comes in handy during important debates, for instance.

Walton works wonders with providing so much commentary on big issues here, issues that I can’t say I often think about but that are interesting to ponder once brought up. If you take a bunch of Christians and transport them back before the time of Jesus, does what Jesus did for humanity still apply? Is it better to have a high social standing and not follow your passion than to have a low social standing but be fulfilled by what you do there? What is true justice?

Actually, I spent a few hours contemplating that one, and I still haven’t come up with a satisfactory answer. Best I can figure out, true justice is where the punishment inflicts proportional damage upon the perpetrator that they inflicted upon the victim. It’s not enough to follow “an eye for an eye” if the perpetrator is ambivalent about losing an eye and their victim valued their sight immensely, because things aren’t proportional. But that means that sometimes justice must be downright cruel, and sometimes it can never be served completely… See, this is the kind of stuff that reading this book makes you think about, which is why I love it! Rarely do I encounter books that put me in that exact frame of mind to ponder big questions in such an analytical way. It makes me want to search for answers. Not necessarily find them, but at least search for them, and in so doing improve my understanding of them.

In short, it makes me want to better myself, to bring myself that much closer to excellence. Which is the whole purpose behind Athene’s experiment with Plato’s Republic.

I’d say this book’s only real shortcoming is the ending. Zeus comes down in all his glory and swoops select people (and deities) away to have a chat about what’s going to happen to all the cities spawned from this experiment. They’re having a larger effect on the world than intended, and it can’t go on that way. Which makes sense. Even the proposed solution makes sense, even though it brings in some odd science-fictional elements that do fit, given the time-traveling powers of gods, but it seemed a little bit too neat of an ending for my taste.

But that still fit more than a single exchange between Apollo and Zeus. Apollo comments that through his time as a mortal, he learned about equal significance and how people have their own needs and wants that are just as valid as his own, even when those desires are in opposition. And Zeus replies by saying that he wondered how long it would take Apollo to figure that out.

And I just wondered if Zeus had been replaced by some other god. Some random deity in a Zeus-suit. Because when last I checked, Zeus is pretty well known for doing whatever he wants, to whomever he wants. So that came across as one epic, “Do as I say, not as I do,” moment.

Either that, or it was one wonderfully subtle reference to the changes in the Christian god’s personality once Jesus came into place. And especially given the frequent comments about how Apollo’s time as a mortal is extremely similar to the stories of Jesus being God in mortal form… I’m inclined to believe the latter, honestly, because Walton can do some amazingly subtle and impacting things with her writing, and it wouldn’t surprise me at all to find that this was her intention. But without reading between a lot of lines, that dialogue seems to be a giant bit of mythological hypocrisy.

Hypocrisy or not, The Philosopher Kings was a brilliant book, and I adored it, as I expected to. If you enjoyed the first book, you’ll feel the same way about this one. And if you’re looking for a fascinating take on philosophy, history, and religion, then look no further than this duology. it’s worth every second you spend reading it, and every second you spend thinking about it afterward. In a word, phenomenal!

(Received for review from the publisher.)

The Just City, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com, B&N, or IndieBound

Author’s website| Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 13, 2015

Summary: Created as an experiment by the time-traveling goddess Pallas Athene, the Just City is a planned community, populated by over ten thousand children and a few hundred adult teachers from all eras of history, along with some handy robots from the far human future—all set down together on a Mediterranean island in the distant past.

The student Simmea, born an Egyptian farmer’s daughter sometime between 500 and 1000 A.D, is a brilliant child, eager for knowledge,  ready to strive to be her best self. The teacher Maia was once Ethel, a young Victorian lady of much learning and few prospects, who prayed to Pallas Athene in an unguarded moment during a trip to Rome—and, in an instant, found herself in the Just City with grey-eyed Athene standing unmistakably before her.

Meanwhile, Apollo—stunned by the realization that there are things mortals understand better than he does—has arranged to live a human life, and has come to the City as one of the children. He knows his true identity, and conceals it from his peers. For this lifetime, he is prone to all the troubles of being human.

Then, a few years in, Sokrates arrives—the same Sokrates recorded by Plato himself—to ask all the troublesome questions you would expect. What happens next is a tale only the brilliant Jo Walton could tell.

Thoughts: It only takes reading a couple of Jo Walton’s books to get a feel for the author’s passions and interests. Since reading Among Others, I’ve found repeating themes in her works, to the point now where little surprises me and I feel fairly sure of what I’m getting into when I start. The main character in Among Others, in fact, makes mention of reading Plato’s Republic, and how it wouldn’t really work because 10 year olds aren’t actually blank slates to edit as one sees fit. So when I heard that Walton was writing a full book based on that very idea, I was excited to read it.

The premise is that the goddess Athene, for whatever reason, has decided to see if Plato’s idea will really work, or at least to discover how well it will work. Apollo, puzzled over why someone would rather die than sleep with him, decides to enter the world of humanity and be part of Athene’s experiment, being born into a mortal body though keeping his divine knowledge and memory so that he is fully aware of the implications of his actions and of the experiment. The masters running the Just City, as it’s known, are scholars and philosophers plucked from all over the timeline, people who would not be missed for various reasons (unappreciated women, those sentenced to die, etc) rescued from unfortunate circumstance and placed in a position where they make use of their love of knowledge and learning. Those locked in the experiment are the children, bought from slavers and rescued and given homes in the Just City, cared for and given educations so long as they’re willing to follow the meritocratic city’s laws. To keep masters and children from wasting time in menial labour, robots from the future are also brought in, to do tasks like cleaning and cooking and general upkeep.

But as with any idea of a utopia, things do not exactly go as planned. Most of the children were happy and grateful to have been rescued from slavery and are glad to adopt the City’s ways, but some are bitter and resentful, and not at all willing to go along with the plan. There is friction between some of the masters, differences of opinion and interpretation on how the City should be run, and the situation forces them to deal with things Plato never laid down rules for because, well, let’s face it, Plato’s Republic didn’t originally involve robot servants or the intervention of a deity. Then the robots start to show signs of emerging sentience…

Jo Walton has this amazing talent for writing a story in which there is little to no action but so much intrigue. She can make mundane life seem interesting, she can make pages upon pages of dialogue discussing the hypotheticals of a situation seem like the most engaging thing ever. I suspect that I could read an entire book of her describing what she did yesterday and I wouldn’t get bored, because she’d include dozens of insightful observations and speculative thoughts and witty commentary. She’s a wonderful writer and manages to put such life into this story, such diversity of opinion and character that it all feels very real. The Socratic debates alone, asking questions until you come to all the answers, could hold my attention for ages, because they’re all about issues that I find myself connecting with.

It’s a fascinating idea behind The Just City. Not a terribly original one, since Walton is building off notions already set down by people in the past. It’s a though experiment about a thought experiment, and a tremendous work of fanfiction. And I say that without any negative connotations on the term, either; fanfiction is, at its purest, the notion of taking someone else’s idea and running with it in new directions, asking “What it?” and seeing where the idea leads. But even within the context of the story itself, interesting questions are being asked. How much should someone break the rules to keep the spirit of a place intact? Is buying children from slavery in order to free them just another way of keeping slavers in business? (A similar modern question could be asked about buying clothes made in sweatshops: if we stop buying those clothes, the sweatshop goes out of business, the workers are out of jobs and don’t make any money at all, so is it a greater evil to buy or not buy?) Will there ever be a society that will satisfy everyone equally? Is it worth a few malcontents in order to improve the lives of the majority? So many questions, and even if none of them get answered definitively (how could they?), Walton touches on them and highlights the issue. There’s a lot of thought-provoking content in here.

Having Apollo incarnate as a mortal also allows for an exploration of humanity, the kind that really can’t properly be written about when you’re already human and that’s all you know. I admit, I’m a sucker for stories involving incarnated deities, and with Walton’s ability to reflect on complex issues in a manner that still entertains and doesn’t beat you about the head with heavy-handed morality, I knew I would, at the very least, enjoy the sections of the book from his perspective. There are some issues you can only see clearly from the outside, and I find this sort of scenario is really good for identifying them. And with consent and equality being major recurring themes, Apollo’s perspective was a good one by which to gain another view on the matters.

I could go on and on about how good a book this is, how intelligent and insightful and entertaining it is, but like many of Walton’s books, any review I give really doesn’t seem to do the experience justice. It’s definitely a book for people who like to explore the “what if”s behind ideas, those who like to follow thoughts to whatever conclusion they end at, those who like to have their preconceptions challenged, and for that, I think very highly of this book. It’s not a book filled with action and fight scenes and high tension, but it’s still a book that keeps you turning the pages to see what develops next. Definitely for fans of Walton’s earlier works, and for speculative fans looking for something that’s different and thought-provoking.

(Received for review from the publisher.)

My Real Children, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – May 20, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) It’s 2015, and Patricia Cowan is very old. “Confused today,” read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. She forgets things she should know—what year it is, major events in the lives of her children. But she remembers things that don’t seem possible. She remembers marrying Mark and having four children. And she remembers not marrying Mark and raising three children with Bee instead. She remembers the bomb that killed President Kennedy in 1963, and she remembers Kennedy in 1964, declining to run again after the nuclear exchange that took out Miami and Kiev.

Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War—those were solid things. But after that, did she marry Mark or not? Did her friends all call her Trish, or Pat? Had she been a housewife who escaped a terrible marriage after her children were grown, or a successful travel writer with homes in Britain and Italy? And the moon outside her window: does it host a benign research station, or a command post bristling with nuclear missiles?

Two lives, two worlds, two versions of modern history. Each with their loves and losses, their sorrows and triumphs. My Real Children is the tale of both of Patricia Cowan’s lives…and of how every life means the entire world.

Thoughts: I fell in love with Walton’s work way back in early 2011, with Among Others, which quickly rose to be a book I knew I was going to reread at least once a year (that’s holding true so far). That love has endured to this day, and I kind of want to devour any of her books that I can get my hands on, especially after having my heart utterly broken by the beautiful parallel stories in My Real Children.

Walton straddles the genre lines in My Real Children, keeping balance flawlessly as she tells a set of stories that are very much contemporary, the stories of a person’s life from childhood to adulthood, with all the mundanities and excitement of regular life (birth, marriage, divorce, war, history marching on), and only in context do you really see how it’s all brilliant speculative fiction. The whole point is that Patricia is remembering 2 different lives, which diverged from each other at a single decision point, something which led to an entirely different world springing up around her. Her decision whether or not to marry Mark should, by all logic, have only influenced her own life and what happens immediately around her, things that she directly influences. But in the world where she has a happy marriage, nuclear bombs are dropped on various places after Hiroshima, different wars happen, the world develops differently, and it’s difficult to trace nuclear events to a woman who becomes a travel writer and gets romantically involved with another woman.

And yet, you can’t help but read this book and wonder about the chains of coincidence that might have led to it all. A different decision, characters in different states of mind depending on the timeline drop a word in someone’s ear, a someone who takes the idea and runs with it and that idea reaches people in power whose decisions change from what they may have done otherwise, all traced back to whether one woman agrees to marry one man. No direct causal link is ever explicitly stated, and Patricia herself wonders how it could have all happened, but I think more important is that it gets the reader thinking about the dozens, hundreds of different ways life could have gone had someone made a different decision in their lives.

The ripple effect, the butterfly effect, call it what you like, but ultimately it means that small things can have huge unintended consequences.

More than that, it all comes so wonderfully full circle. Early in the book Patricia muses that she’s known famous people before they were famous, and you’d never be able to guess who they’d become later on in their lives. And then we see, piece by piece, how Patricia’s small decision, something that by all rights shouldn’t have such consequences, might have made all the difference to the world. The circle also is complete by the ambiguous ending. After chapters of your heart breaking as you watch Patricia slowly lose her memory, from the small things to the big, her life leads her to the same place in the end and she thinks that if she had a choice as to which timeline to pick, to eliminate one or the other, she’d pick… And it breaks off. It’s never said which she picks, or if she picks, or if that thought made a difference at all. Maybe she forgot it in the next moment.

It really is heartbreaking to see Patricia lose herself as dementia takes hold. Seeing it from her perspective, her frustration with herself at forgetting things she should know, seeing her children get frustrated and angry at her for it. You get to see both sides of the coin, and it’s raw and powerful difficult to read, as it should be. It examines just how much our memories make us who we are, and how there are some things that are written so deep in our minds and hearts that they can’t be forgotten even when we wish they could be.

This is a difficult book to review. Most incredible books are. My Real Children is the kind of book that a mere review can’t do justice. It’s not just a book, not just a story, but an experience. Jo Walton is a storyteller of the highest order, able to write profound and nuanced books and cross genre lines in a way that few others can aspire to. I can’t heap enough praise on this book or its author, and nothing I say can really prepare you for reading it. Just know that it’s amazing, that it will break your heart, and it will stimulate your mind to look at the world in different ways. Walton’s powers of observation, her ability to tell a glorious intelligent story, and her ability to bring history to vivid life will forever ensure that I eagerly read whatever she writes. Fans of speculative fiction looking for something that breaks the mold, as well as fans of contemporary fiction with a twist, will likely adore My Real Children just as much as I did.

What Makes This Book So Great, by Jo Walton

Buy from Amazon.com or Amazon.ca

Author’s website | Publisher’s website
Publication date – January 21, 2014

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) As any reader of Jo Walton’s Among Others might guess, Walton is both an inveterate reader of SF and fantasy, and a chronic re-reader of books. In 2008, then-new science-fiction mega-site Tor.com asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-reading—about all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics, to guilty pleasures, to forgotten oddities and gems. These posts have consistently been among the most popular features of Tor.com. Now this volumes presents a selection of the best of them, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field’s most ambitious series.

Among Walton’s many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by “mainstream”; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field’s many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read.

Over 130 essays in all, What Makes This Book So Great is an immensely readable, engaging collection of provocative, opinionated thoughts about past and present-day fantasy and science fiction, from one of our best writers.

Thoughts: Jo Walton is one of those authors whose work I haven’t read nearly enough of it, and I’m always struck by that whenever I do read anything she’s written. (Which I confess is usually me rereading Among Others for the umpteenth time.) She’s the kind of author who makes me remember why I love to read, and what she writes makes me want to read just about everything in sight. There aren’t too many authors I’ll say that of.

(Is it creepy of me to say that I wish I was her, just a little bit? Or at least that I had her reading speed. When she talks about reading multiple books in a day, I just kind of sigh with envy.)

Walton’s large collection of essays from Tor.com was incredibly thought-provoking, her comments on books that I may or may not have read got the wheels turning in my head and provided a wonderful and different perspective on other similar fiction that I have read. The essay highlight why talking about books can be such a wonderful thing. Different opinions lead to discussion, to a greater understanding, to perspectives a single person may not have considered on their own. Meaning apparent to one is not always apparent to another, and knowing that Walton is both a prolific reader and an excellent and observant critic made reading her commentaries a real treat for me.

Most of the time. It’s one thing to read one, maybe 2 essays written about a book or series that I have never read; even if I don’t know the plot or characters or setting or any of that, I can still enjoy commentary on themes or observations about various aspects of the work. But more than that? It gets tedious. Or rather, it got tedious, since there were a few series mentioned in multiple essays, looking at each book individually, then the series as a whole, and while that may be interesting for someone who has read the series, for someone like me who has not, it was just boring. In the end I had to skip chunks of them; it got too frustrating to be bombarded with more talk about things that I didn’t know and that no context would really be given for. Not that the essays weren’t insightful. It was that they were just lost on me, and that there were so many of them, one after another.

I suspect this might be a sticking point for many readers of this collection. It’s a stretch to expect that anyone who reads this will have read all the books Walton is commenting on, so we’re all going to have to take our lumps somewhere and read about some books we have yet to get around to. But 3 pages is much easier to deal with in that regard than, say, 50 or more.

Still, Walton does have the kind of writing style and observation that will draw in those with a similar passion for criticism and analysis, and I learned a lot from reading What Makes This Book So Great. It’s like a primer for those who want to be critics but don’t know where to begin. You can hand them a copy of this book and tell them, “Here, try to do it like this.” Whether you agree with her opinions or not, you can’t deny that she makes a fantastic point and her thoughts are well worth reading.

(I was also impressed by the fact that she wrote something on a novel that I was beginning to think that I’d just dreamed about reading, because I’d seen nobody else mention it anywhere. Katherine Blake’s The Interior Life. While I disagreed with some of the things she said about it, her essay helped me see things from a different perspective, which was interesting, and made me want to read it again to see if my opinion of the book may have changed over time.)

Having read it, I know it’s the kind of book that isn’t just going to get read once. It’s a reference guide, something I’ll return to again and again for inspiration for my own commentaries, and because yes, like Among Others, my To Be Read pile has just exploded and I’m going to want to revisit some of the essays after reading the book so that I can have a deeper appreciation of both. It’s a must-have book for many genre fans and just about every reviewer of genre fiction.

Among Others, by Jo Walton

  Buy from Amazon.ca, Amazon.com, or IndieBound

Author’s website
Publication date – January 18, 2011

Summary: (Taken from GoodReads) Startling, unusual, and yet irresistably readable, Among Others is at once the compelling story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood, a brilliant diary of first encounters with the great novels of modern fantasy and SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.

Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled—and her twin sister dead.

Fleeing to her father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England–a place all but devoid of true magic. There, outcast and alone, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off…

Thoughts: There are few books that I can close and say with certainty that they have an assured place on my bookshelf for the foreseeable future. This was absolutely one of those books.

Among Others is the fantasy tale for realists, a story for storytellers, and a companion for those who were bibliophiles and loners through their childhoods. This is a book that not only makes you wish that it didn’t end so that you could keep on reading, but also makes you want to pick up every single other book mentioned within its pages so that you can read them all, too.

And believe me, there are a lot of them!

I loved how magic worked in this book. Not in big loud flashy ways but in all the subtle ways that make the world work, the ways that reach out and back and connect everything to everything else, and where the real trick is in believe it and knowing it for what it is.

That interconnectivity is what made this book truly amazing. We come in not at the beginning or end of a story, but somewhere in the middle, because the story is life. At times, it felt like a wonderful homage to all those who ever put down a story and wanted to know more about what happened later, because the bulk of the action, the powerful event that shaped lives, happened before Mori starts telling her tale in the first place. But there was still the connection to it. As was there also the connection of the end, the fall of Liz and the events surrounding it, to the very beginning when Mori dropped that first flower in the water and set magic in motion. It was gratifying to see that.

Also interesting was the way the story was told as though reading Mori’s diary. Which meant that in addition to the big events that you expect in fantasy, like magic and fairies and all the supernatural elements, you also get a focus on school and growing up and personal likes and dislikes. These things are just as important to the main character as they would be to anyone who can do magic and yet who still is forced to live in the real world, with all its mundane troubles and trials. A good balance was struck.

Ultimately, I think that anyone who passes over this book is going to sorely miss out, because what Walton does here is profound, powerful, and deeply affecting. More than just creating a good story, more than just making a character who can be related to, more than striking that balance between the mundane and the supernatural (or rather, the natural, if you want to look at it that way), all of these things combined to make something that I think is greater than the sum of its parts. This is truly a novel not to be missed.

(This novel was provided to me by H B Fenn, and arrived in my mailbox only a day before I found out the whole company shut down. How’s that for connectivity and coincidence!? Anyway, I did not pay for this novel, did not receive financial compensation for this review, and all opinions expressed are my own.)