“Everybody has a secret world inside of them. I mean everybody. All of the people in the whole world, I mean everybody – no matter how dull and boring they are on the outside. Inside them they’ve all got unimaginable, magnificent, wonderful, stupid, amazing worlds… Not just one world. Hundreds of them. Thousands, maybe.”
Maybe you’ve read something by Jo Walton, maybe you haven’t. For such a wide-ranging and multi-award-winning author I am always surprised when her books don’t appear across a whole swathe of blogs like some others do. She is an automatic-purchase author for me and someone I reread a lot. Her books never fail to get me thinking. So, I thought a sort of can-I-tempt-you? post was in order. Because even if you’ve bounced off one book by Walton, doesn’t mean that another of her novels won’t grab you by the hair. And because I want to celebrate in my own small way just how many and various her work has been so far.
Before we begin, my three reasons for loving Jo Walton’s fiction are as follows:
One. She doesn’t waste words. No matter what she turns her hand to, there is a deliberateness to her writing – she is economical always, but also beautiful, poetic and elegant.
Two. She is an inclusive author for no other reason than that all people are a part of life and stories. When I despair of the human race and of myself her books remind me both that I need to keep trying and that there are others out there trying too.
Three. She doesn’t write about the same thing twice.
(A final note: I’ve included ‘Associations’ notes for each of Walton’s books because I sometimes find “if you liked this, then you’ll like that” comments helpful. However, these kinds of association are always subjective and perhaps even more so in my case, when sometimes I’m linking books because of the colour they left in my mind. So, if it’s helpful, great. If not, just ignore it).
In the Sulien ap Gwien universe:
The King’s Peace (2000) and The King’s Name (2001)
(You can find my full post on The King’s Peace and The King’s Name here).
This is Walton doing historical fantasy. These two books are a retelling of the Arthurian legend in an alternate world where magic is a commonplace part of everyday life. It’s not grand magic. It’s magic used to start fires, to purify water and heal wounds, and keep food stores fresh. And there are gods, and seers who can look out across the other worlds and see what might come to pass. Better than all of this though, it’s the story of an asexual woman warrior (in a world where women can and do) who simply wants to be the best she can be. This is one of those books that’s written so beautifully I want it to be true.
These first two books make me think of Robin McKinley’s The Blue Sword and The Hero and the Crown, and also maybe a little of Rosemary Sutcliff’s Sword at Sunset and Mary Stewart’s The Crystal Cave. Having not yet read anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, I can’t say for sure whether that’s also an association that can be made, but I’ve seen it suggested online (and can’t find where now that I want to reference it).
The Prize in the Game (2002)
(Again, my full post here).
This novel is also set in Sulien’s world and is a retelling of the Táin Bó Cúailnge that sticks more closely to its source material than the King books do to the Arthurian stories. It has the romance that The King’s Peace and The King’s Name were missing, if that’s something you need in your stories, but only if you like your romances understated and ultimately doomed. (You don’t have to read the King books first, but if you do, there’s the added enjoyment when reading The Prize in the Game of meeting the younger versions of characters you’ve already met there). Elenn (Walton’s Guinevere), Ferdia and Darag are the characters that wormed their way furthest into my heart. Elenn’s inevitable journey towards Tir Tinagiri, Ferdia’s love for Darag, and Darag’s strangely fated rise to heroism are all compelling and moving threads in this very beautiful book.
Point of interest: Walton refers to this as her “non-selling book” on her website and I don’t understand why that should be. It is as strong and brilliant as anything else she has written. Maybe I should start some sort of campaign to get people buying it…
This book makes me think of The Song of Achilles by Madeline Miller, The Last of the Fianna by Michael Scott and the now lost collections of Irish myths and legends given to me by my Grandfather.
Tooth and Claw (2003)
(I wrote a post about this one too, which you can read here – last one, promise).
If you didn’t realize yet that there was a Victorian-dragons-shaped hole in your life, surely you will when I tell you of Tooth and Claw. Imagine a Victorian novel in which the consequences of challenging social conventions is that you get eaten. Imagine a society in which getting caught in a compromising situation left a physical mark upon a young unmarried female that all the world could see. Imagine the topics of servitude, industrialization and religion all looked at through a dragon’s eye. Fabulously narrated, dramatic and funny, I love that this book exists. Read it. Read it for the dragons in hats if for nothing else!
This one makes me think mostly of Anthony Trollope’s Framley Parsonage (which it would, as that’s Walton’s acknowledged source material), and of Charles Dickens.
The Spare Change Trilogy:
Farthing (2006), Ha’penny (2007) and Half a Crown (2008)
This is Walton’s alternate history trilogy in which the British make peace with Hitler and consider Fascism a good idea. Farthing is a kind of cosy whodunnit, but because Fascism is on the rise it ends in entirely the wrong way. Then Ha’penny and Half a Crown continue the story, but with a far more thriller-ish tone. The character that links the books together is Inspector Peter Carmichael and Walton punishes him mercilessly throughout the trilogy. I love Carmichael and his relationship with his partner Jack, and I love the three women that provide the other POVs in each book: Lucy, Viola and Elvira, (who I believe were based on the Mitford sisters, if I remember correctly). For all that, however, these books truly terrified me (who needs horror?!) and I read them back to back in a kind of frenzy, desperate for the glimmer of light at the end. I’d say this was my most intense Walton reading experience and would describe these books as Marmite – you’re going to love them or hate them, but you can’t sit on the fence.
Read this trilogy if you like alt-histories about the Second World War and/or being scared witless by political possibilities. Farthing makes me think of Agatha Christie and Josephine Tey books. The trilogy as a whole makes me think of Never Let Me Go by Kazuo Ishiguro and Watchmen by Alan Moore, because while neither of these are set in the same period or even have the same subject matter, they all have an acid-green-and-grey vibe for me.
This is the Walton book I feel most protective of. It’s a stunning non-linear account about the life at Applekirk manor and village and the events surrounding two visitors who arrive there one summer. It is a little like The King’s Peace and The King’s Name in that it has some traditional fantasy trappings, and at the same time, is a far more domestic story. Or rather, the everyday is given lingering, loving attention here. Even when the story reaches its zenith, what the reader finds themselves caring about most is how the larger events will affect the daily lives of Taveth and her family. I love it for its championing small lives and routine tasks – preparing food and housekeeping – while also tackling much bigger ideas about time and relationships. The polyamorous marriage at the heart of this book is sensitively drawn and fascinating.
This book makes me think of Ursula Le Guin’s writing and of Robin McKinley’s Chalice.
Among Others (2011)
I guess this is the book that most people know about, having been nominated for the World Fantasy Award and having won both the Nebula (2011) and the Hugo (2012). It’s a book for all book lovers, because it’s about the consolation and expansion of the world that books can provide, no matter who, where or what you are. It’s also about fairies and magic, about surviving trauma and desperate loneliness, and about finding your people. And most importantly, it’s about 15-year-old Mori, whose voice (the book takes the form of her diary) is one of the most believable I’ve ever read.
I most associate this with Tam Lin by Pamela Dean for both its bookish aspects and its real-world-butted-up-against-magical-world vibes. For its fairy/faerie/fae elements I associate it loosely with Graham Joyce’s The Limits of Enchantment and maybe The Stolen Child by Keith Donohue too.
My Real Children (2014)
This is Walton’s least genre novel, I think. Yes, it addresses the possibility of multiple realities (à la the Sulien books) and alternate history (à la the Small Change trilogy), but with a very light touch. More than anything it is a study of one person’s life in two sets of permutation. Patricia Cowan makes a choice in 1949 and her life diverges at that point. In one life she marries Mark and has four children. In the other she falls in love with Bee and they raise three children together. Suffering from dementia and in a care home at the end of her life she remembers both sets of memories and is visited by all of her children. Faith, sexuality, friendship, disability, love, time and family are all dealt with, but most of all this book looks at womanhood in all its variation. It is beautifully crafted, with the two worlds and personal histories balanced always between conflict and concord, heartache and happiness. It’s a book that celebrates everything a person has the potential for, the flexibility we’re capable of, and the worlds within each of us.
This book makes me think of Moon Tiger by Penelope Lively and Woman on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy.
The Thessaly Trilogy:
The Just City (2015), The Philosopher Kings (2015) and Necessity (2016)
In The Just City the time-travelling goddess Athene draws people from across human history to participate in an island experiment: a utopia based on Plato’s Republic. Some things go well. Some things go wrong. There are robots. The story of these characters and their descendants, including the god Apollo living as a mortal, is then continued in The Philosopher Kings and Necessity. All three books are an extended philosophical debate and a meditation on the nature of the Greek gods (and of gods in a more general sense) and I love everything about them. Simmea’s and Maia’s stories in the first volume are the ones closest to my heart, but I also love Arete in The Philosopher Kings and both Marsilia and Crocus (the robot!) in Necessity. Most of all I love all the talk about how to live a good life, how to grow as a person and how to improve the soul. Not everyone’s cup of tea, for sure, but these books are so full of hope I can’t help but love them. (Also, lots of talk about time travel. Always fun).
Point of interest: Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola both real historical figures appear in these books …
The Just City particularly makes me think of Mary Renault’s books. The trilogy as a whole makes me think of Sophie’s World by Jostein Gaardner in that reading it is very much like taking a (mostly Classical Greek) philosophy crash course. And Walton has said that friend and fellow author Ada Palmer had a great deal of influence on this trilogy (each of the books is dedicated to her), which immediately put Palmer on my tbr list, although I’ve yet to read anything by her.
All I knew when I bought this was that it was about Renaissance Florence, Girolamo Savonarola and Hell. It’s also about the Medieval Church and about faith and philosophy, about what makes a life worth living and about hope. If anything, this book feels like a natural progression from the Thessaly trilogy, despite being completely different. I love Walton’s Girolamo. I love too that I can’t really find the words to encourage others to read this one. There’s a point, almost halfway in, where the story’s kind of flipped on its head that I wouldn’t want to spoil for anyone. I went into it with no knowledge of either Florence or Savonarola and just trusting Walton had a story to tell. And it’s one hell of a story, that perhaps requires that leap of faith.
(Point of interest: Marsilio Ficino and Pico della Mirandola appear in this book too …)
This book made me think of The Anubis Gates by Tim Powers while I was reading it, but mostly because both books refer to time as a river and not for any other solid reason. There is maybe a whiff of a Connie Willis vibe for me too, but again, it’s not concrete. Of all of Walton’s books, this is the one that is honestly nothing like anything I’ve read before except maybe some of Walton’s other books. I need more people to read it so that they can tell me their associations, so that I can read more stuff like it, because hot diggity I enjoyed this book.
The stuff I haven’t yet read:
A collection of Walton’s poetry, short stories and a play. I haven’t been able to get hold of a copy yet, but I will. Just look at that cover art!
Or What You Will
***Pub. Date: 7 July 2020***
This is Tor’s back cover copy, which I’ve lifted from Walton’s website:
“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 min, Sylvia has conversed with him for years.
But Sylvia won’t last 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.”
Doesn’t it sound frigging awesome?! I am so excited to read this. And point of interest: Ficino and Mirandola are set to appear in this book as well! Colour me intrigued!
So, have you read anything by Jo Walton? If so, what was it and what did you think? If not, have I managed to tempt you at all?