Tag Archives: Jo Walton

What Makes this Book so Great, Jo Walton

Tor, 2014, 448 pages, $C31.00 hc, ISBN 978-0765331939

What Makes this Book so Great, by Jo Walton, isn’t much more than a collection of short pieces first published on tor.com. The common unifying theme to the series is that Walton isn’t trying to review new material as much as she’s re-reading books, forgoing an initial assessment to delve a bit more deeply into the qualities of the book being discussed. It’s a selection of pieces, with minimal visible editing—meaning that, unlike some other blog-to-book efforts offering selection, editing and contextualization, it doesn’t offer much more than what’s online (and arguably less, as you miss out on the blog comments, many of whom are mentioned in latter comments). It does, however, come with a new introduction, which explains why it’s worth re-reading books and is convincing enough to make you reconsider any previous stance of reading versus rereading.

What makes this book so great is, indeed, the passion for reading that Walton brings to her subject. While she approaches the book she rereads with initial sympathy, this doesn’t mean that she will let anything pass: She effortlessly logs significant complaints against major books, highlight flaws that may go unnoticed and grudgingly recognizes when he earlier self may have erred upon first read. Conversely, her enthusiasm about some books is contagious, and may populate your list of books to add to your reading list.

What Makes this Book so Great has a few highlights to offer. I was impressed by the book-by-book reread of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Vorkosigan series (with which I’m familiar and could nod along) and Stephen Brust’s Vlad Taltos series (with which I wasn’t, and was almost convinced to pick up later). Individual essays worth reading include a discussion on the suck fairy, and so on. Throughout, Walton displays the omnivorous energy of a reader steeped deep into genre fiction, casually tossing off references that a small but dedicated number of readers will best appreciate. This isn’t a book for the casual crowd: it’s a book for those who have read SF since their teenage years and can talk knowledgeably about its various facets.

What makes this book so great is, in large part, because it (generally) replicates the typical convention experience of chatting with a highly knowledgeable genre reader or (specifically) hanging out with Jo Walton. As readers of these reviews know, I’m lucky to call Jo an acquaintance, and this book is what I mean when I say that Jo is usually the most interesting person in the room. Read it, and you’ll understand what great fun it is to discuss genre fiction with her. As much as I like Jo’s fiction, this is probably the book that best exemplifies who she is, with her quirks and passions and irrational dislikes and formidable insight. You can’t always go to a convention with Jo, but you can always grab this book and read it, which is good enough by itself.

What Makes this Book so Great may not be perfect: it’s often scattershot, idiosyncratic and makes reference to online material that requires readers to have internet access. Its pieces will obviously be of varying interest, depending on what books you have already read. But it’s a heck of a present for genre readers who are reasonably familiar with genre fiction from the 1950s to the early twenty-first century: It’s a portrait of a dedicated reason, a keen analyst and a generous fan. While I’m not convinced it has a readership outside the core SF&F genre crowd, it is (much like her Hugo-Award-winning novel Among Other) keenly targeted at this group. Well worth picking up, even if the material is already online.

Among Others, Jo Walton

<em class="BookTitle">Among Others</em>, Jo Walton

Tor, 2010, 302 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-2153-4

I have the good fortune to count Jo Walton amongst my acquaintances, and I only name-drop because I want to establish some credibility when I say that Among Others is a book much like Jo Walton herself: Smart, kind, funny, perceptive and unapologetically in love with written Science-Fiction and Fantasy.  The book itself is a subtle fantasy, a tribute to the power of reading as self-actualization and, I suspect, a fair chunk of autobiography as well.

Taking place in-between Wales and England, Among Others brings us back to the savage days of 1979-1980 in diary form.  Our narrator/heroine, Mori, is not in the best of circumstances.  She and her twin sister may have saved the world from the evil that is their mother, but not without consequences: her twin sister is dead, her mother hates her, and she’s been exiled to a boarding school in accursed England, far from home and the fairies that have come to be her companions.  Mercifully, Walton doesn’t go back in time to explain the backstory, instead focussing on Mori’s life at the boarding school and the difficult process of reintegration as she comes to grip with the death of her twin sister, one diary entry at a time.

As a fantasy novel, Among Other is subtle to the point of being almost deniable.  The fairies that occupy post-industrial Wales are neither good nor bad, but they certainly use Mori for their own end.  When she completes a ritual to shut down a poisonous factory near her town, it doesn’t crumble to dust as much as it closes down the next day, causing thousands to lose their jobs in the process.  Later, when Mori wishes for a group of like-minded people to ease her loneliness, she ends up discovering a local SF book club.  Magic, in Mori’s world, may be about rejigging cause-and-effect as much as it may be a metaphor for taking control one one’s destiny.  (Daydreaming between chapters of the novel, I found myself tangentially wondering about those people for whom everything seems to go right –it doesn’t take much to imagine them as unconscious magicians in a universe that allows for subtle nudges to destiny.)

A sufficiently blinkered reader could read Among Others as fanciful realism, but that’s missing the point of Walton’s affectionate blend of teenage memoirs, genre references and non-metaphorical fantasy elements.  While the paper-heavy ending has enough thematic resonances to make any book-lover purr aloud, it’s a real, albeit unconventional fantasy.  Any other kind of reading is being wilfully obstinate.

This being said, Among Others is most rewarding as a novel aimed at genre readers.  Mori, seeking reintegration in the absence of her twin sister and isolated by her exile to a boarding school, soon turns to the local library and the available genre fiction.  As a diary of an omnivorous teenage reader, Among Others is filled with in-jokes about classic Science Fiction and Fantasy as Mori reads a book every two days and jots down notes to herself.  It’s also, perhaps more crucially, an uplifting homage to books and to readers and how even lonely introverts can find a community and a place in the world.  Mori is a tough, resilient, sympathetic protagonist –the things she brushes off would traumatize most so-called “normal” people, and her genre-influenced mindset is another tool she uses to understand her environment.  Among Others will be a comforting read to anyone who spent a lot of time in libraries as a teenager, and those who even today, as fully-functional adults, can recall how they were shaped by their reading.

It all amounts to a lovely novel, fascinating in the details as much as it’s interesting in its overall dramatic arc.  I suspect that Among Others is designed to appeal first and foremost to avid readers; casual fans of fantasy may not find as much here to love as those who have undergone extended loneliness like Mori.  At the same time, it’s a fantasy novel that deals in shades of meaning, subtle moments and complex characters.  It’s satisfying from beginning to end, and it lends itself to fascinating conversations.  It’s an ideal novel for book-clubs and book lovers.

But don’t tell Jo I wrote that, as I have a contrarian reputation to maintain.

Half a Crown, Jo Walton

<em class="BookTitle">Half a Crown</em>, Jo Walton

Tor, 2008, 316 pages, C$28.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1621-9

True to form for Jo Walton’s work, Half a Crown is both familiar and unexpected, successful and flawed, charming and unnerving. As the third book in the “Small Change” trilogy, it has to live up to the expectations set by its predecessors, which described the course of an alternate history in which England played nice with the Nazis. The result was fascism with a kindly British face, told in alternating chapters by young women and a detective with more and more to lose.

This detective, Peter Carmichael, has risen through the ranks in the decade-and-a-half since the previous volume: Now head of the secret police, he spends half his time upholding the law of his government and the other half doing what he can to lessen the oppression. The years since Ha’Penny have been rough on England: In almost fifteen years of totalitarianism, the population has come to an arrangement in tolerating its oppressive government. Some people have lived nearly their entire lives under this type of regime, and find the whole thing natural.

Which brings us to the other narrator of the story: Elvira, daughter of Carmichael’s old partner, now his ward but also eighteen and anxious to become a débutante. Her introduction into formal society won’t go as planned as a rally turns violent and police arrest her. For both Elvira and Carmichael, this is the beginning of momentous events that will change everything. 1960 London is boiling with tension, and this gives Half a Crown an extra layer of urban complexity that wasn’t immediately obvious in the first two novels of the trilogy.

As ever, it’s Walton’s low-key extrapolation of British fascism that make up the bulk of the novel’s conceptual appeal. Draped in King and Cross, Half a Crown show that fascism can become part of the background noise –especially if one learns to ignore the occasional cries for help. If the political events of Farthing could be considered an accident and Ha’Penny can be seen as a missed chance to make things better, Half a Crown is more pernicious because it shows that totalitarianism isn’t something that will be automatically be resisted by everyone. The inertia of ordinary people, promised nothing less than what they already have, can be a surprisingly amoral force.

As for the novel’s more conventional qualities, there’s little to say: Walton is a careful writer, and there’s a great deal to like about Half a Crown‘s characters (especially as they’re forced to make the choices their whole lives have been leading to), the slow-burn pacing and the way Walton finds essential details in commonplace things. Fans of the first volume will finally learn what happened to the Khans, although the answer and its implications may not be as reassuring as they may think.

The only element of the book that is likely to cause controversy is the ending. The “Small Change” trilogy has been relentlessly downbeat, and though everyone can forgive a happy ending, Half a Crown seems to make things awfully easy on itself, in a way that practically begs for a dose of sarcasm. A short royal conversation, a proclamation and the whole thing is on its way out? It fits and yet doesn’t: despite the sacrifices of the characters (and yes, a recurring character does die along the way), Half a Crown‘s ending seems to wrap up too quickly and easily.

But it’s also fair to say that the principal strength of the series has been about journeys, about the day-to-day life rather than the cusp points or the wrap-up. Walton, in a way, has attempted the portray the unstoryable, the way in which we get used to horrible things. Comfort from routine can be found in the oddest places, and upsetting this routine always feel wrong somehow, even when the change ends up (or should end up) being for the better.

Ha’Penny, Jo Walton

Tor, 2007, 319 pages, C$29.95 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-1853-4

Don’t expect this to be a completely objective review of Jo Walton’s Ha’Penny. In reviewing her Farthing last year, I made a few hasty remarks and eventually ended up on an “Issues in Farthing” panel alongside the author, her editor and fifty of their closest friends. I learned a lot from the experience.

Fortunately, even the pickiest readers will find plenty to like about this second volume in the “Small Change” trilogy. The series, taking place in an alternate England where WW2 appeasement has led the country to a negotiated peace with the Hitler regime, remains an exploration of how so-called “good people” can come to support reprehensible policies. But whereas Farthing was about an unconscious slide into fascism, Ha’Penny goes even further by describing how people reach a willing accommodation with such situations.

The novel brings back Inspector Carmichaels, a capable Scotland Yard investigator who is once again assigned to a case with political implications. This time, a deadly bombing in an expensive neighbourhood triggers the investigation. Early on, the matter is settled as an accident, but that conclusion only raises more questions: Why would a relatively well-off actress be involved in the delicate business of bomb-making? If it’s part of a campaign, who’s the target?

As with Farthing, a female character narrates the other half of the story. Viola Lark, née Larkin, broke away from her upper-class family in order to strike it on her own as an actress. Things are going well for her, but family has a way of reaching back and before even realizing it, Viola is blackmailed in helping a terrorist plot. The target: Adoph Hitler, on the opening night of Viola’s new play…

And so the duelling begins, with a delicious inversion of the usual thriller structure: Usually, we hope for the inspector to catch his prey, and for the plotters to fail. This time, things are different –an irony that eventually isn’t lost on the characters themselves. The twist is further deepened by the tangled loyalties of the characters, Carmichael gradually making compromises to fit in a fundamentally hostile regime even as Viola is manipulated by weak family connections and a reprehensible thug to do something that some readers may consider noble. Both characters are sympathetic and competent in their fields. They just happen to be stuck in an impossible situation, and unable to say no.

Ha’Penny resembles Farthing in that it’s a fascinating look at another time, slightly skewed through the perspective of an alternate history. The world of London theatres at the end of the 1940s is fascinating, and Viola’s routine as she prepares to take the leading role in a cross-cast production of Hamlet accounts for much of the novel’s early interest. But we already know, from the novel’s first chapter, that things are not going to go well for her. Ha’Penny shares with its predecessor a slow-burn pacing, as pieces are put in position and the duelling plot-lines gradually comes closer. The last few chapters pull out the stops as the story reaches its grim conclusion.

If Ha’Penny isn’t as striking as Farthing as a consequence of being a sequel in an already-established universe, it’s generally more interesting: I’m more partial to assassination thrillers than cozy murder mysteries and Ha’Penny moves slightly faster than its predecessor. Viola is a more interesting narrator than Lucy, while Carmichael’s increasingly tainted morals are worrisome. Meanwhile, the character of Walton’s diverging world is also getting more sophisticated. While Ha’Penny takes place too soon after Farthing to present important divergences, the London focus of the book allows readers to see how things are going in the more politically charged atmosphere of the capital and how the new Normanby government is assuming its newfound totalitarian powers. The parallels between that world and ours aren’t as angry or obvious as in Farthing, but they’re more pernicious in that they reflect how people often shrug off bad regimes and rationalize that things will be better… and that nothing is ever their fault.

Newer readers are advised to start with Farthing as this follow-up spoils the first volume and has often-intricate links with its predecessor. (No, we don’t learn what happened to the Khans… but we get a good hint.) But then again newer readers are advised to pick up all Jo Walton novels on general principles. (See, that’s me not being objective.)

The “Small Change” trilogy concludes in Half a Crown, due August 2008, and it’s going to be a long wait.

Farthing, Jo Walton

Tor, 2006, 319 pages, C$34.95 hc, ISBN 0-765-31421-5

After successfully combining Jane Austen and dragons in Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton is mixing genres once more in Farthing, this time throwing together a cozy English murder mystery in the pot along with an alternate history political thriller. While the result may not be perfect, it’s certainly good enough to warrant a good look.

Putting an alternate history in a thriller template isn’t new, of course: Len Deighton SS-GB and Robert Harris’ Fatherland also did so (to reach for the first two obvious examples), but neither managed the transition between the personal and the political as well as Walton does in Farthing. As a murder investigation spirals upward and outward into a political conspiracy, the novel shifts from a comfortable mystery to a nightmarish alternate history where everyone is at risk.

Alternating between first-person narration from a bubbly privileged girl and third-person segments following the investigating detective, Farthing initially feels like a classic murder mystery (“The butler probably did it!”) with a few unsettling details. Through various hints and careful exposition, we learn that this “Farthing set” of politicians has successfully negotiated peace with Hitler, freeing the Nazis to go fight Russia and letting Great Britain stand alone as an increasingly fascistic America keeps to itself.

These details take on a special importance as our narrator’s husband is suspected of murdering the victim. If Farthing seems to dawdle along pleasantly during its first two thirds, it eventually leads its readers to an abrupt break with reality as everything catastrophically changes and our cozy mystery becomes a conspiracy thriller. The last fifty pages are a fine example of dystopian political fiction with troubling echoes with today’s worst conspiracies. (Isn’t it fascinating how fascism-rising parallels find a whole lot more traction now than five or ten years ago?) What seemed like a charming book with unfortunate background details becomes a full-throttle chiller, reflecting the speed at which things can turn ugly when everything has been meticulously planned…

And let’s not kid ourselves: As a murder mystery set in Nazi-threatened England, Farthing is fun but not special. But as the description of how one’s country can suddenly slide into fascism, it roars up and demands notice. The ending makes the book in many ways: My initial issues in seeing the action leave Farthing Manor and scatter itself through the countryside were resolved when I realized that this expansion of setting mirrored the widening political intent of the book. It also takes some of the weight off the murder mystery, which simply isn’t as strong as the other half of the book. Finally, the heightening of the dramatic tension also contributes to re-shape our understanding of the characters as they take dramatic action to cope with the unexpected.

On a page-per-page level, Farthing is compulsively readable, readily accessible from its very first pages onward. Walton is a skilled storyteller, which makes the book’s few artistic mis-steps a bit puzzling. First among those is the almost comical accumulation of gay and bisexual characters. [September 2007: I seldom redact reviews after publication, but what was here instead of this parenthesis was, upon further reflexion, useless and stupid. Feel free to imagine the worst.] The “instant revelation” of a character’s pregnancy may also put off a few readers, though elementary research suggests this is anecdotally frequent.

But these are small details, and they pale when considered against the power of the conclusion. It reaffirms Jo Walton’s growing stature in the field, as someone able to combine good prose with high concepts. (I’d call Walton the “mistress of the hybrids” if it didn’t sound vaguely kinky in a Science Fiction fashion.) Two books set in the same world have been announced: we’ll wait for the details.

[November 2006: Jo Walton linked to this review from her blog, saying “Christian Sauve is fairly positive with reservations and clearly also knows fewer gay people than I do.” Well, yes. Two of her commenters weren’t so kind on me, citing the section redacted above. Lesson learned.]

[September 2007: Strange things happen, and “being asked to discuss issues in Farthing on a panel alongside the book’s editor, at an event organised by the author” is one of them. It went well, but I learned that I still have a lot of growing up to do.]

Tooth and Claw, Jo Walton

Tor, 2003, 292 pages, C$9.99 mmpb, ISBN 0-765-34909-4

I don’t read a lot of fantasy, and that fact may have worked to my advantage as I made my way through Jo Walton’s short-but-rich Tooth and Claw. Perhaps the most succinct description one could make of the book would be “Austen with dragons” and it would even be exact: A comedy of manners set in a world peopled with wings-and-fire dragons, Tooth and Claw re-imagines the rigidly-defined social roles of Victorian romances as being motivated by the biological imperatives of dragonkind.

As a book, it’s definitely a one-in-a-kind curiosity. But don’t think that the interest stops with the premise: Walton is able to do more than paint a pretty world, and so it doesn’t take a lot of time for the dragons, —scales, snouts and all— to grow on us as characters every bit as enjoyable as anything else in the Romantic canon.

The plot is set in motion by the peaceful death of a family patriarch. His corpse has barely any time to cool down that it’s already being torn apart –literally. One thing leads to another and before long the whole inheritance issue is causing its share of troubles between the rest of the family, and those surrounding them.

Despite the scaly eight-foot-tall characters, readers will immediately feel an atmosphere of comfortable reading pleasure. Walton deliberately sets her story in a universe not unlike the English Regency era, alternating between rich country estates and the griminess of a city not called London… Even the dullest fantasy/romance readers like myself will be off and running within a few pages.

Don’t be fooled by the book’s relatively short page count: The story is so gripping that you’ll slow down to read every sentence in full, savouring how Walton is able to build a fabulous novel of character on top of a fantastic premise.

What’s particularly noteworthy for a Science Fiction geek like myself is the way dragons are here approached almost as an exercise in alien world-building. Walton makes it seems as if the most outlandish aspects of her pseudo-romantic society logically derive from biological factors. I knew the novel was going to work for me when Walton explained the irreversible “blushing” effect and made it an integral part of dragon courtship: clever, clever stuff.

Fans of Jane Austen’s work will be bowled over by the way Walton pays careful homage to the conventions of the genre, through inheritances, disdain of the church, reversal of fortunes, hard-working heroes and the reason for it all, big romantic love. There’s no shame in loving a book like this one when it’s so well done.

Tooth and Claw is so surely manned, in fact, that it’s obvious midway through the book that this will end well not just for the characters, but for us as readers. Only a few misstep (the fortuitous arrival of a sizable fortune; too-similar names) mar the overall portrait, but they’re nowhere near denting the considerable reading pleasure offered by the book. An awe-inspiring hybrid between a literary joke and a wintertime-fireside comfort, Tooth and Claw is well worth a look, even for those who think they’ve got no time for romance or fantasy.