Hello, friends and readers! It’s been over thirty days since I spent time with a human who wasn’t my wife or (from a safe, two-metre distance) my mother. I expect I’ll be looking back another thirty days from now, and saying it’s been over sixty days. But it is what it is, and we all do needful and uncomfortable things to keep other people safe…
This time I have only two books to tell you about. Both of them are forthcoming (so they’re something to look forward to!), one of them is a novella. One of them I adored, while the other I enjoyed and appreciated while also wanting to have an argument with someone about the tendency to valourise certain historical periods and figures as special or in some way peerless… But more on this later.
Zen Cho’s The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water is a slender and gorgeous novella, deftly written and precisely paced. It has a strong wuxia aesthetic and a compelling set of characters, and it has action, personal intrigue, secret pasts and unexpected revelations—plenty of those.
There’s a limit to how much I feel I should discuss the details of The Order of the Pure Moon Reflected in Water, because so much of my enjoyment came from how things I expected unfolded in unexpected ways. I expected secrets of the past reprised in the present: I did not expect the precise ways that the history of a bandit second-in-command and the history of a former votary of a religious order would dovetail to bring them together, or how the narrative element of bandits with sacred objects would play out. It’s an elegant and fascinating gem of a novella, and I recommend it wholeheartedly.
Jo Walton’s Or What You Will is also forthcoming, due out this July. It’s a standalone novel, not set in the same universe as any of her previous books, but it is connected to some of them very strongly, nonetheless.
Since The Just City and its sequels, Walton’s fascination with Renaissance humanism—and Platonism viewed through the lens of Renaissance humanism—has been clearly displayed in her work. Lent made this fascination even plainer, set as it was in 15th-century Florence, and here in Or What You Will Walton returns to the same well. Yet again, Pico della Mirandola (or his shadow) and Marsilio Ficino appear as larger-than-life presences, and the world of Renaissance humanism is presented with an enthusiastic geekery that verges on evangelism. (Or What You Will is, at least in part, definitely a love-letter to Florence.)
I fear that this tone of evangelical revelation—the Renaissance! isn’t it SO COOL! — leaves me unfortunately cold, and contributes to a degree to my ambivalent level of outright enthusiasm for Or What You Will. (I fear I’ve always been rather jaded with the whole idea of the Renaissance: it’s a historian’s construct that’s extremely limited in both time and space as a tool for thinking with, and as a narrative construct it’s gotten rather out of hand and developed rather self-congratulatory Eurocentric legs.) But that ambivalent enthusiasm is also influenced by how much, tonally and in certain thematic elements, this novel feels like Among Others. There’s a symbolic salvific role for science fiction and fantasy in both Among Others and Or What You Will, and in Or What You Will, that salvific role is reified and made manifest. The power of imaginative creation and a fictional world can in a very real way save one, or perhaps two, specific individuals from death and pave the way to life everlasting…
Yet this is a powerful novel, for all that it may at times feel self-indulgent. A novel deeply concerned with grief, with selfhood, with growth and change.
And a playful one. Walton interweaves the fictive and real (or real insofar as it applies to the novel) worlds with a kind of joyful abandon, playing with categorisation and creation, eliding the edges between worlds until it’s possible to step between one and the other. There are layers of fiction—of fictive creation—that slide into each other, and there’s an argument about the nature of fiction, reality, and immortality. A playful argument.
Walton is deft with characters and with prose: Or What You Will is very easy to read. And to keep reading. The conclusion doesn’t quite satisfy, but that may be a function of my relation to the novel’s thematic arguments, rather than actual execution.
It’s an interesting book. I liked it. I want to pick a fight with a lot about it. I’m not sure how to reconcile these two reactions, save perhaps to observe I’m growing more unreasonable as well as crankier in my middle age.
What are you guys reading right now?
Liz Bourke is a cranky queer person who reads books. She holds a Ph.D in Classics from Trinity College, Dublin. Her first book, Sleeping With Monsters, a collection of reviews and criticism, was published in 2017 by Aqueduct Press. It was a finalist for the 2018 Locus Awards and was nominated for a 2018 Hugo Award in Best Related Work. Find her at her blog, or find her at her Twitter. She supports the work of the Irish Refugee Council, the Transgender Equality Network Ireland, and the Abortion Rights Campaign.