I believe that there are other worlds—but not in the same way that physicists hypothesize. I believe that, when we read, we bring stories to life for as long as the tale holds our attention. The stories that we keep reading are the ones that are the most alive because we carry iconic characters like Sherlock Holmes and Hamlet around in our heads. After reading Jo Walton’s meditative, experimental Or What You Will, I suspect that Walton has similar beliefs.
Or What You Will is a curious hybrid of a novel. One strand is pure metafiction. Author Sylvia Harrison converses with a nameless entity that functions as muse and personal morale booster. This entity, which she discovered as a child on the day of her grandmother’s funeral, has played a part in every novel Sylvia has written. The other strand is populated by characters from Twelfth Night and The Tempest, historical figures, and characters from Sylvia’s own novels. We learn in just a few chapters that this other strand is the plot of the novel that Sylvia and her muse are working on. We also learn that this untitled novel will be Sylvia’s last one, as her cancer has returned.
Sylvia’s unnamed muse has a plan to help them both avoid death, but it involves two impossible things. The first impossible thing is, of course, not dying. The second impossible thing is crossing over to a place where impossible things like not dying are a reality: Illyria, the country that Sylvia invented for her first books. The muse’s plans mean that it and Sylvia think and talk about death a lot. Is it necessary? What doe death mean?What does immortality mean? Is literary fame an acceptable version of immortality?
Meanwhile, in Illyria, the characters think about death in a very different way. Because they only die if they or another person will it, people can live for centuries. Their long lifespans mean that they can pursue intellectual, artistic, and magical careers, if they like. The price they pay for all this time is that they don’t have Progress. Illyria is stuck in the Renaissance; any technology invented after the 1500s doesn’t work. The long lifespans also have another, perhaps unsurprising, consequence. In a world where people live so long, it’s just a matter of time before old enemies show up for revenge.
Its fun to see Orsino, Miranda, and Caliban again and figure out Walton’s intellectual puzzles. Nothing in Or What You Will is what I expected. I think some readers might fault this book for being too much of a thought experiment. I’ll concede that this book takes a few chapters to find its feet, but I enjoyed the opportunity to think about the lives and realities of fiction. Most of all, I love the thought that the worlds that authors create are out there, floating and occasionally brushing up against our world when those authors put out another book or a reader opens the pages. How amazing would it be if we could literally escape into a beloved fictional country, instead of just metaphorically?
I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley, for review consideration.