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Musing on Books
Or What You Will, by Jo Walton, Tor Books, 2020, $26.99, hc.
The Angel of the Crows, by Katherine Addison, Tor Books, 2020, $27.99, hc.
The House in the Cerulean Sea, by TJ Klune, Tor Books, 2020, $26.99, hc.
I write this in July of 2020, when things are sliding down a hole that I am terrified cannot be plugged. I admit that I've had some problems even reading, because part of my brain is consumed with anxiety, with the need to have a plan, the need to somehow do something; if I have a plan, my brain will come back to me and I can continue to move forward. I write this across the border, in Canada, a country that is like, and also unlike, the U.S.
No matter what is said about the U.S., and what has been said over the past couple of decades, the U.S. is the Ur democracy. In 2016, many, many writers I know lost the ability to write for months—because what we see now is the future that we could see then. I was one of those writers.
I was also one of those readers: I would pick up a book, I would start it, and I would bounce off the page, not through any fault of the book. It felt, on a visceral level, that even reading was trivial, that I should be doing something that would somehow change things. I admit that this reader slump has returned, with teeth; the scope of what I can read has narrowed significantly, and I apologize for that.
The books I reviewed for this column are books that press specific buttons, that fulfill specific needs, because that's what I have capacity for at the moment.
I wasn't sure what to expect from Jo Walton's latest offering. It is very helpful if you are either a Shakespeare fan or at least familiar with The Tempest. I was on the fence about this—it has been a long time since I've read The Tempest—until the end of the book, or at least the last paragraph. If Shakespeare is not your thing, you can go to Wikipedia and read the plot synopsis, although the plot itself is relevant. I don't think the play Twelfth Night, Or What You Will, which gives Walton's book its name, is as necessary, but if you happen to love this comedy, the novel is like an epilogue to the play.
I will say up front that I have never been a great lover of most of Shakespeare but especially not the comedies; I find them so incredibly misogynistic that while people are laughing I'm brooding in an increasing rage. Yes, I realize these were written in an entirely different social context, practically a different world—but as I didn't grow up in that context, as I'm watching from a modern context, I…don't actually care. I won't argue that there's a reason he's persisted, and I find some of his work enormously moving—but that shatters every single time when we reach the parts that throw me out of what I'm watching and also slap me across the face.
(This is not a popular opinion. Since we're being unpopular, I will also say that my writer friends, with a handful of exceptions, often love Jane Austen's work, and I have been forbidden to join some of those conversations as well.)
However, having said all of that, I nonetheless have to say: I loved this book. I loved it. Yes, it's clear that Walton does love and revere the bard, just as she clearly loves Florence, which comes to life so clearly in the novel that it almost makes me want to travel to Florence to see if I can catch some of the light and warmth she offers this city of her heart. I am not one of nature's tourists; I'm almost the anti-tourist. But there's a glow to her view of Florence that is so visceral, so real, I might be able to catch some of the fire in it, to hold it up, to illuminate what I might never otherwise see or notice without that light.
So: I am not a Shakespeare fan. I am not a travel fan. Astute readers might therefore wonder if I loved this book in spite of the centrality of these two things. I want to say yes, but I can't actually separate these two elements from the whole of the book itself.
Among Others was Walton's autobiographical book. I liked it, but it felt almost distant from its subject, as if I were reading a book written by someone else at a great remove.
Or What You Will, which is not autobiographical on its surface, feels viscerally more so to me as a reader; there is an intimacy to it that I did not feel was as present in Among Others. That is entirely because, at its heart, it is also a book about writing, about creativity, but seen through a very different lens.
The nameless narrator of the novel is not the writer. It is…the writer's imaginary friend, birthed—or discovered—by the author, Sylvia, in a traumatic period of her young life. She sees him in a mirror (well, a pane of glass), and she sees him as distinct and different from the reflection she should have seen. He can speak to her, he has his own voice, and for a friendless, isolated child, he is a desperately needed friend.
He has been part of her life, with a long break, since then.
And when Sylvia finally finds the silence and freedom to attempt to write a novel, he becomes the protagonist of a trilogy of books set in Illyria. It is an invented world, a fictive world—and also the Shakespearean name for the world in which The Tempest is set. The fact that the world is a tribute is never really mentioned in the text, and I had forgotten it until I went back to refresh. Regardless, the first three books Sylvia-the-author writes are fantasy, set in Illyria. The main character of those books is Pico, a man who has crossed from our world to Illyria, a historical character in a portal fantasy.
He makes a choice at the end of the trilogy that will change Illyria forever—a change that Sylvia did not plan. The narrator, as Pico, makes a meaningful choice that he believes might destroy him utterly—for he lives in what he sees as mist—the mist in the bone cave, the inside of the writer's head.
But that is not what happened to him. Instead, he returns, and returns again, entering the novels which Sylvia writes as different characters—once a Dragon. He has been happy to do this because in so doing, it justifies and proves his existence. He is afraid of death. He is afraid of being discarded, of melting into mist, as so many of the characters who come from the mist do.
He wants to survive. He wants to live.
And his life is tied to Sylvia, a woman in her seventies. Without her, he has no life. Without inhabiting her worlds, he has no use—and if he has no use, how will he remain? He is chained to her, bound to her, but… he is distinct, and he has managed to remain so for the entirety of Sylvia's writing career.
He doesn't try to explain that career; he doesn't deliberately speak of her process. Sylvia does—often when she's either arguing with him or apologizing to him for events that he finds upsetting. She is ruthless, in his view; she is heartless; she is his personal god, and therefore his liege-lord and his lord.
So: The narrator is the imaginary friend.
Sylvia's life and events in it combine with the book she is writing—and it will be her last book. She is not well. The narrator knows this, even if Sylvia has not told him this herself.
But he has a plan, and the plan requires Sylvia to be what she has been: a writer, a creator, a person who is devoted to the joy of creation, even when she struggles with the practical difficulties of it (like, say, bad chairs). Sylvia's first chapter of the new Illyria book, her last, is the second chapter of the book, but the first chapter of the novel in which she has said she won't allow the narrator to take a part. She wants something different, something new, something that doesn't rely on previous tricks.
He wants to survive.
There is much to talk about here: immortality, what is left when one dies, creativity, creation, the excitement of being part of a movement of creatives who are interested in the creation itself. But perhaps in some fashion the book works for me because the lack of immortality is death, and with death comes grief, loss.
Or perhaps it's because I found, in the narrator and in his contextualization, his explanations, his historical knowledge, some of what draws me to Neal Stephenson's novels—the digressive loops that roll back into the book, the odd bits of history, the mini-essays (the one that comes to mind most strongly is about grief and customs of grieving). This has the feel to me of a Neal Stephenson book on some levels—but it is both a quarter the length of a Stephenson book, and a book that Stephenson would never, ever write.
I could put this book down, and did—but to think, to reflect, to turn over plot twists and narration and structural elements as if they were new and bright and shiny and I needed to just look at them on the inside of my own head.
And having said all of this, there is a joy and a playfulness and a certainty in Or What You Will, and the end sent me immediately back to the beginning.
I, as many, many readers did, loved The Goblin Emperor. Because of that, I, like many, many readers, was looking for the next book by Katherine Addison. I had heard that she was writing another novel set in the same universe as The Goblin Emperor, and I wanted it desperately.
This book is not set in that universe. The Angel of the Crows is, at heart, Sherlock Holmes pastiche, set in the time of Holmes, centered in Baker Street, and in the London of the time of A. C. Doyle's writing. Dr. Doyle is a medic who served in Afghanistan until he was injured—by one of the Fallen on the battlefield. The injury did not kill him, although it was close; the Fallen are poisonous to human life.
It did, however, change him.
Released from the army that he did not want to leave, he returns to London, because he has very little money and he cannot walk for long, even with the aid of a cane. Estranged from his family, short on funds, he has found a rooming house, but even that stretches his limited means. He needs to find a job. He needs to find a roommate.
To no one's surprise, he does, but this roommate is not human. He's an angel. Yes, angels exist in this alternate London, as do all manner of creatures supernatural. But the angels of this world are not the Angels of our current myths or stories—yes, they have wings, and yes they're called Angels, but "angelic" in this context carries a different weight, a different meaning. They aren't human. I should repeat that, but, well—this Angel is the Holmes analog, and Holmes has often been presented as…lacking human warmth.
The Angels are Angels of specific spaces. Angels of hospitals. Angels of inns. Angels of Parliament. They are bound to the locations which they've graced by their presence. Should the place over which the angels preside be burned down—should they lose their various domiciles—they become part of the Nameless. Or they become the Fallen.
Crow, as the Angel is called, is not Nameless. But…he isn't bound to a place either. He was, once; he didn't enjoy it. But he's driven by both intense curiosity and the equally intense desire to be of use. This does not make him pliant or sweet-natured—he indeed has the earmarks of a Holmes: he is arrogant and certain in his beliefs, some of which are that these detectives are utterly useless and about as observant as brick walls, an opinion he doesn't hesitate to share.
But the angelic nature makes Holmes literally less human, and therefore more palatable.
Doyle moves in with Crow, and they begin to take cases together. Crow has had many roommates, but they find him too difficult to live with as he occasionally forgets things when excited—like, say, the reach of his suddenly spread wings and the proximity of tea pots and other breakables. Doyle, however, wants the privacy, and the utter lack of human judgment; for Doyle, Crow is the ideal roommate.
While the book follows the skeleton of Holmes, it turns many of them on their heads. There is much here—in the world-building—that speaks to the time period and also speaks against it. Addison builds an analogy of undesirables out of the non-humans, the paranormal creatures, all of whom are expected to register with the police or government, and many of whom do not. The fear of the unknown, the fear of the different, is focused on them.
Part of what I like as a reader when reading the various new Holmes takes is the guesswork, focused down on the how. How is the story being transformed? How is the structural mystery shifted or changed? Where does the new overlap the old, and where does it take off to fly in different directions while still bound by the same conventions?
The mysteries are solid, the solutions solid, and I have to admit I felt, reading the book, that there was so much more that could follow if Addison wanted to continue to write in this world. I have a strong reader weakness for competence; I have a fantasy reader's interest in world-building. I love to see them both woven together in such certain hands. Addison also upends some conventions, many of which depend on our expectations, but they work on the page very well, and I will say no more because nobody wants actual surprises to be spoiled.
I picked up TJ Klune's The House in the Cerulean Sea because I had heard it was hopeful, comforting, kind. Sweet is also a word that was used to describe it.
I agree, but perhaps not quite for the reasons that other readers have. Yes, at heart, this is a book about finding a home, finding a place to belong. But to me, it's also about kindness as an action. It's not about the desire for kindness exactly, or rather, it has some element of that.
But kindness is not passive, and in the end, kindness can't be blind.
Linus Baker is a man who works for the Department in Charge of Magical Youth. In this world, magical creatures and magic exist, although the majority of the world is comprised of normal, timid humans, of which Linus is one. He is a caseworker, this world's version of a specific kind of social worker, and his job is to inspect orphanages and the incidents that occur at them. Or rather, to inspect the orphanages involved with magical youth.
In this case, "youth" is children.
We have some idea of what Linus is like because the first chapter sees Linus interviewing children specifically because there's been an incident; one of the young children has thrown a chair at another child, breaking his tail. Magic is dangerous—of course it is—and his job is to ascertain whether or not the children are safe at the orphanage. I admit that in the first handful of pages I laughed out loud, because Klune does have a solid eye for what children are like, and magical children are children.
But the new Top Secret job he is given is unlike any other job he has undertaken. He doesn't want to go, but has no choice; he is terrified of his superiors—Extremely Upper Management. But Linus is also terrified of his immediate superior, terrified of being judged, terrified of being a bother—he is a fearful man. He is also alone; his one friend is a cat.
The one thing he has going for him is his work: he does it well, and he's observant. But he does his job entirely by the book. What he lacks is malice. But he is not unkind.
It is the orphanage that is his new job that will eventually cause him to become kind—because kindness is active, and it takes risks. He knows the law, he knows the rules, but to truly stand by them, he has to make choices and act on them. He has to be objective to do his job.
This is difficult because he has to get the children to trust him enough that he can file his reports. And to do that, he has to learn to trust them. This has never been an issue before, but he's never been involved with such an extreme assortment of magical children, of races he has read about but never encountered. To trust him, they have to be seen, understood, and trusted in turn. They have to be loved—not a word that Linus really uses.
How objective can he be while watching the best parental figure he has ever seen, a man who is at the heart of the secret investigation—and a man who might, just might, offer Linus the home he has never had, if he has the courage to accept it?
It's a beautiful little gem of both irony and, yes, kindness, which I desperately wanted.
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