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Books : reviews

Jo Walton.
Tooth and Claw.

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 2 April 2005

[p.v] ... a number of the core axioms of the Victorian novel are just wrong. People aren't like that. Women, especially, aren't like that. This novel is the result of wondering what a world would be like if they were, if the axioms of the sentimental Victorian novel were inescapable laws of biology.

Bon Agorin is dying, and his family gathers round for his last hours. He is not rich, and so his unmarried daughters will not have good dowries, and his sons will have to find their own way in the world. What happens next has many of the characteristics a typical Victorian novel, including hissable villains, improbable coincidences, thwarted romances, and satisfying come-uppances --- except for the fact that all the protagonists are dragons. But it's not some trivial substitution: all the background is very richly worked out, including dragon lifecycles, egg laying, flight, and the role of gold. In particular, as noted in the preface quoted above, the female dragons do have many of the qualities of Victorian novel heroines -- which might be slightly grating were it not skillfully countered by their dragonish consumption of great hunks of bloody meat at most meals. Great fun.

Jo Walton.
NESFA Press. 2009

You probably live in a place not unlike Marakanda, or perhaps you could get there on horseback in a week or so. Marakanda is a university town, and it’s because of the diligence of the folk history curators at the Marakanda Academie that you are holding this book in your hands. For the Academie is one of only three places in the world which keep the original account of the events relatetl in this story;

Of course the story is not about Marakanda, it’s about Applekirk, a ways to the east from Marakanda. If it were about Marakanda there’d probably be a notice that no dragons were injured during the telling of this story. Marakanda is a regular place with regular people leading regular lives, not a place where the art of yeya is practiced in everyday life. Well, to be honest, no dragons were injured in Applekirk either, for the simple fact that there are no dragons in Applekirk. But farther east than Applekirk there are some very peculiar beings and who knows, they might be a little like dragons.

But this story is not about those places farther east than Applekirk—it 1s about Applekirk, the families of Applekirk Manor, a visiting Marakandan scholar seeking knowledge about the ancient Marisians who once lived in Abplekirk, and one other, someone who left Applekirk years earlier after the Plague, went far east, and came back to tell about it.

So be prepared for a story quite outside the realm of Marakandan experience. You never know but that you might find yourself on a caravan one day going East for an adventure or your own.

Jo Walton.
Among Others.
Tor. 2010

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 20 April 2011

What do you do after you have saved the world, a feat that has left you both bereaved and crippled? Especially when you are just a 14 year old girl, and your mother is the mad witch that you have been battling? Well, you run away from home, find your estranged father, end up in a boarding school, try to communicate with the local fairies, and read SF.

p36. It's depressing how much boarding school is just like Enid Blyton showed it, and all the ways it's different are ways it's worse.

On one hand this is a kind of alternative to the great short story "Relentlessly Mundane"; on the other hand it is a coming-of-age autobiography. And on the gripping hand, it is a poem to the genre of Science Fiction. I read it, transfixed. Wow. Most of the time nothing seems to happen. But each small event contributes to Mori's growth, to her moving on, until the ultimate showdown.

This will speak to anyone who grew up supported by reading. Even if they didn't save the world first.

Jo Walton.
My Real Children.
Corsair. 2014

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 3 February 2016

The day Mark called to ask her to marry him, Patricia’s world split in two.

It is 2015 and Patricia Cowan is very old. ‘Confused today’ read the notes clipped to the end of her bed. Her childhood, her years at Oxford during the Second World War – those things are solid in her recall. Then that phone call and … her memory splits in two.

Was she Trish, a housewife and mother of four; or was she Pat, a successful travel writer and mother of three? She remembers living her life as both women, so very clearly. Which is real – or are both just tricks of time and light?

My Real Children is the story of both of Patrica Cowan’s lives – each with its loves and losses, sorrows and triumphs, its possible consequences. It is a novel about how every life means the entire world.

Patricia Cowan is an old woman, forgetful, consigned to a nursing home at the end of her life. The staff note that she is “confused”; she can’t seem to remember the simplest things: which way to turn out of her door, who her children are, any of her life. But that’s not just because of her forgetfulness: she has two sets of memories, and keeps slipping between them. In one, she has a life where she said yes to Mark’s marriage proposal, in the other she has a very different life after she said no. Which life is real?

Walton weaves two very different life histories for her central character, based on a single turning point. Patricia’s life is profoundly affected, as are the lives of people she does, or does not, interact with. Most importantly, to Patricia, are her resulting children: two very different sets, one from each life, both loved. Which children are real? But also, in the background, we see there are two very different world (neither our own), one tending to utopia, the other to doom. Which world is real?

Although it is clear how Patricia’s choice affects her own life, and the lives of those close to her, it is not made clear how it affects the rest of the world, although it is implied that it does: presumably it is some sort of butterfly effect, changing remote people’s decisions. No matter; this is a skilfully drawn and deeply moving portrait of two very different people who are in fact the same person in different circumstances. Patricia’s second, shattering, choice at the end of her life had me reading through strangely misted vision.

Jo Walton.
What Makes this Book so Great.
Tor. 2014

A compendium of lively reassessments of the classics—and half-forgotten gems—of modern fantasy and SF.

As any reader of Among Others might guess, Jo Walton is both an inveterate reader and a chronic re-reader. In 2008, then-new science fiction mega-site asked Walton to blog regularly about her re-reading—about all kinds of older fantasy and SF, ranging from acknowledged classics to guilty pleasures to forgotten oddities and gems. This volume presents a selection of the best of Walton’s articles, ranging from short essays to long reassessments of some of the field’s most ambitious series.

Among Walton’s many subjects here are the Zones of Thought novels of Vernor Vinge; the question of what genre readers mean by “mainstream”; the underappreciated SF adventures of C. J. Cherryh; the field s many approaches to time travel; the masterful science fiction of Samuel R. Delany; Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children; the early Hainish novels of Ursula K. Le Guin; and a Robert A. Heinlein novel you have most certainly never read.

Jo Walton.
An Informal History of the Hugos: a personal look back at the Hugo awards, 1953-2000.
Tor. 2018

Engaged, passionate, and consistently entertaining, this book is for those who enjoyed Walton’s previous collection of essays from, the Locus Award-winning What Makes This Book So Great.

The Hugo Awards, named after pioneer science fiction publisher Hugo Gernsback, and voted on by members of the World Science Fiction Society, have been given out since 1953. They are widely considered the most prestigious awards in science fiction.

Between 2010 and 2013, Jo Walton wrote a series of posts for, surveying the Hugo finalists and winners from the award’s inception up to the year 2000. Her contention was that each year’s full set of finalists generally tells a meaningful story about the state of science fiction at that time.

Walton’s cheerfully opinionated and vastly well-informed posts provoked valuable conversation among the field’s historians. Now these posts, lightly revised, have been gathered into this book, along with a small selection of the comments posted by SF luminaries such as Rich Horton, the late Gardner Dozois, and the late David G. Hartwell.

Jo Walton.
Tachyon. 2018

rating : 3.5 : worth reading
review : 26 November 2019

In her first collection, award-winning novelist Jo Walton delivers both subtle legends and reinvented realities. An ancient coin cyber-spies on lovers and thieves. The magic mirror sees all but can do nothing. A cloned savior solves a fanatically-inspired murder. Three Irish siblings thieve treasures with bad poetry and the aid of the Queen of Cats.

It’s not often an author prefaces a short-story collection with a statement that she didn’t know how to write short stories at first, and only the latest two were written after she learned what to do. But don’t worry: this is Jo Walton, and so all are good, and some are great. I have read some of these before on her website, including the gruesome “At the Bottom of the Garden”, and the marvellous “Relentlessly Mundane” (which could serve at an introduction to Seanan McGuire’s Wayward Children series). But most of these were new to me. If this is what she writes when she doesn’t know how to write, I’m really looking forward to her second collection.


Starlings (a poem). 2017
Three Twilight Tales. 2009
Jane Austen to Cassandra. 2016
A letter goes astray.
Unreliable Witness. 2001
An old woman is visited by an alien. Maybe.
On the Wall. 2001
The mirror cannot lie.
The Panda Coin. 2011
A coin's adventures in a space station.
Remember the Allosaur. 2007
What parts can a non-human actor get?
Sleeper. 2014
Can a simulation of a revolutionary start another revolution?
Relentlessly Mundane. 2000
What happens to the children after they return from their adventures in magical lands?
Escape to Other Worlds with Science Fiction. 2009
Joyful and Triumphant: St Zenobius and the Aliens. 2011
Aliens in heaven.
Turnover. 2013
Why would those born on a generation ship want the voyage to stop?
At the Bottom of the Garden. 2000
Modern children and fairies.
Out if It. 2017
Last chance to repent.
What a Piece of Work. 2004
The AI is trying to act for the best.
Parable Lost. 2009
To help or not to help, that is the jellyfish.
What Would Sam Spade Do?. 2006
Be careful who you clone.
Tradition. 2007
Cutting the end off the ham.
What Joseph Felt. 2004
The nativity from Joseph's pov.
The Need to Stay the Same. 2015
A review of a story about alien humans.
A Burden Shared. 2017
What if you could shoulder someone else's pain for them?
Three Shouts on a Hill (a play). 2010
An alternate Irish myth.
poems. 2017

Jo Walton.
Tor. 2019

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 12 September 2020

Young Girolamo’s life is a series of miracles.

It’s a miracle that he can see demons, plain as day, and that he can cast them out with the force of his will. It’s a miracle that he’s friends with Pico della Mirandola, the Count of Concordia. It’s a miracle that when Girolamo visits the deathbed of Lorenzo “the Magnificent,” the dying Medici is wreathed in celestial light, a surprise to everyone, Lorenzo included. It’s a miracle that when Charles VIII of France invades northern Italy, Girolamo meets him in the field and convinces him not only to spare Florence but also to protect it. It’s a miracle that whenever Girolamo preaches, crowds swoon. It’s a miracle that, despite the Pope’s determination to bring young Girolamo to heel, he’s still on the loose … and now running Florence in all but name.

That’s only the beginning. Because Girolamo Savonarola is not who—or what—he thinks he is. He will discover the truth about himself at the most startling possible time. And this will be only the beginning of his many lives.

Girolamo Savonarola was a Dominican friar who preached in Florence, and was burned for heresy in 1498. Nearly the first half of this novel is the story of the six years leading up to this event, with the only fantasy overtones being that Girolamo can see and cast out demons. The novel makes him a sympathetic character, rather than the somewhat puritanical zealot of history. But on his execution, the novel takes a highly unexpected turn. For this Girolamo Savonarola is not human.

For me, the story got much more interesting once the fantasy aspects are foregrounded. As I said, that’s nearly half the way through. Up until then, it can be read (apart from the demons) as a relatively straightforward dramatisation of an historical figure. This is well done, but not my usual fare; however, I like Walton’s work, so I persisted. And it was worth the wait.

The rest of the book, which I can’t describe without massive spoilers, has the same historical feel, although the context has changed dramatically. It gives a wonderful view of life in Italy at this time, through a fantastical lens, and keeps you guessing until the end. I thought the ending was very slightly rushed, but everything fit together perfectly.

Jo Walton.
Or What You Will.
Tor. 2020

rating : 2 : great stuff
review : 21 February 2023

A novel about where stories come from—and where they take us

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, seventy-three, 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 mind, Sylvia has conversed with him for years.

But Sylvia won’t live 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 trilogy she published decades earlier. 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.

Sylvia is a renowned fantasy author, coming to the end of her life. This is a problem for her muse, who doesn’t want to die with her. He has a cunning plan.

This is simply amazing. It is wonderfully imaginative, very meta, and deeply moving. Each of the worlds is fully realised: Walton’s love affair with Italy is evident, and the weaving together of various Shakespearean characters in their lives after the plays and Sylvia’s subsequent tales, is fascinating. In particular, the consequences of Sylvia’s authorial choices about immortality and change play out in complex and satisfying ways.

Walton just gets better and better. Highly recommended.

Jo Walton.

Jo Walton.
Tor. 2007

Jo Walton.
Half a Crown.
Tor. 2008

Jo Walton.
The Just City.
Corsair. 2014

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 15 August 2015

‘Here in the Just City you will become your best selves. You will learn and grow and strive to be excellent.’


NAME: Kallisti
NICKNAME: ‘The Just City’
POPULATION: 10,520 children, 300 philosophers, Sokrates, Athene, An unknown number of robots
LANGUAGES: Classical Greek, Latin
LOCATION: Thera (aka Atlantis)
CLIMATE: Mediterranean
GOVERNMENT: Philosophical Monarchy
RELIGION: Hellenistic Pagan (with onsite gods)
SPORTS: Wrestling, Running in Armour, Archery
HOW TO GET THERE: Read Plato’s Republic and pray to Athene. Or be a ten-year-old girl. Or be a god
HOW TO LEAVE: You can’t

Having just finished Plato at the Googleplex, this seemed like the obvious next read.

The gods Athene and Apollo decide to set up and run a ‘Just City’, following the rules Plato laid down in his Repbulic. They find a suitably isolated island, and recruit a bunch of people from throughout history: ones who have prayed to Athene to live there. These people become the first rulers, and they buy cohorts of 10-year-old-slaves (with some rather unfortunate repercussions on the local slave economy) to become the first people actually fully raised according to Plato’s plan. They all settle down to being the best selves they can be, for the most part. Things are going along reasonably well, although the planned parenthoods, and enslaved machines becoming sentient, are causing some wobbles. Then they decide to introduce Sokrates to the mix...

This is a gentle novel with deep consequences. It has three point-of-view characters – a god, a ruler, and a child – as we see the Just City grow from its inception until the children reach adulthood.

I’m glad I had read Plato at the Googleplex just before this, as I am not as familiar with Plato’s philosophy as I could be. My only previous information was from reading Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies many years ago, and getting a rather less positive view of his philosophy.

Jo Walton’s novel of living in Plato’s Republic steers a course between these two views. There are certainly all the nasty totalitarian issues Popper rails against, from the Noble Lie downwards, but there are other problems in utopia. In particular, the use of robots instead of slaves to do all the scut-work initially seems to be a clever technological solution to a very real problem, but it turns out to have problems of its own. Most of the issues are experienced only second-hand through the viewpoint characters, who have been raised or trained within the philosophy, and are so less critical than we are. The initial nerd-wish-fulfillment educational aspects, even when confronted with Sokratic stirring, eventually have to give way to the underlying problems, however.

I thoroughly enjoyed this, and am looking forward to the sequel: The Philosopher Kings.

Be excellent!

Jo Walton.
The Philosopher Kings.
Tor. 2015

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 26 May 2019

Twenty years have passed since the goddess Athene founded the Just City.

The god Apollo is still living there, albeit in human form. Now married and the father of several children, the man/god struggles to cope when tragedy befalls his family.

Beset by grief and fuelled by a bloodthirsty desire for revenge, he sets sail for the mysterious Eastern Mediterranean to find the man he believes may have caused him such great pain.

What his expedition actually discovers, however, will change everything.

The tumultuous events at the end of The Just City, twenty years ago, have resulted in schism: there are now five cities on the island, each following their own different version of Plato’s vision. And they are using their warrior training to engage in “art raids”, stealing artworks from the original city for themselves. One such raid leads to tragedy, and sparks the events of this book. Apollo, living as the mortal Pytheas, is devastated, and swears vengeance. He, accompanied by several of his children, and other members of the Just City, leave on their ship to pursue the alleged perpetrators, who left the island just before the schism. They find they are not the only ones following Plato’s vision, which could lead to some historical complications.

This is another fine book by Jo Walton, told from three viewpoints: Apollo, his daughter, and her teacher. It is again a gentle novel, with people behaving relatively rationally under very trying circumstances. Even one incredibly brutal scene is recounted somewhat dispassionately, without wallowing in the gore.

The changes Apollo’s half-god children undergo, and the amazing solution to the future problems being caused by those who left the island, make me want to read the next installment immediately.

Jo Walton.
Tor. 2016

rating : 2.5 : great stuff
review : 24 June 2019

More than sixty-five years ago, Pallas Athene founded the Just City on an island in the eastern Mediterranean, placing it centuries before the Trojan War, populating it with teachers and children from throughout human history, and committing it to building a society based on the principles of Plato’s Republic. Among the City’s children was Pytheas, secretly the god Apollo in human form.

Sixty years ago, the Just City schismed into five Cities, each devoted to a different version of the original vision.

Forty years ago, the five Cities managed to bring their squabbles to a close. But their struggle brought their existence to the attention of Zeus, who wouldn’t allow them to remain in deep antiquity, changing the course of human history. Convinced by Apollo to spare the Cities from destruction, Zeus moved them to the planet Plato, which circles a distant sun.

More than a generation has passed since then. The Cities are flourishing on Plato, even trading with multiple alien species. Then, on the same day, two things happen: Pytheas dies as a human, returning immediately as Apollo in his full glory, and there’s suddenly a human ship in orbit around Plato—a ship from Earth.

In this conclusion to the Thessaly trilogy, the Platonists are having a busy day: the mortal Pytheas dies and is immediately reincarnated as the god Apollo, Athene goes missing, and humans discover their colony planet.

From the blurb, it is clear what this book will be about: the culture clash as the Platonists meet the 26th century humans. And then, brilliantly, it’s not about that at all. Instead, it’s a fascinating theological mystery tale.

This is a fantastic conclusion, touching on alien cultures and their gods, philosophy, pronouns, families, AI sentience, time travel paradoxes, and so much more. And Sokrates is back; yay!

Truly excellent.

Jo Walton.
The Prize in the Game.
Tor. 2002

Jo Walton.
The King's Peace.
Tor. 2000

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 9 February 2002

This is the story of Sulien ap Gwien, a warrior fighting with High King Urdo to restore Peace to the land of Tir Tanagiri. The first half of the book is about her training, her rise through the ranks, and all the battles, told with a real feel of slogging through cold mud, the hardships of campaign, the grief of losing companions, the logistics of supplying an army, and the fierce joy of battle. The second half, subtitled The King's Law, tells of the even more difficult fights, some physical, some religious, most political, to maintain that hard-won Peace.

Although in one sense this is an alternate history Arthurian story, it is sufficiently alternate that it can be read as straight fantasy. All the names are different (some more different than others), events are different although analogous, even the geography is subtly different, and magic and the Old Gods are real, and play an important part. Occasionally a name is close enough to give you a foreboding if you know the legends, but even if you don't you won't miss much -- the "first person retrospective" style allows the narrator to interject comments like "If I had known what he would do later, I would have killed him then." The main difference is Sulien herself. She's a great character, and the world has been carefully set up so that women can realistically be warriors -- she's not the only one in the story.

This is a good read. There's a rich background (the personnel and all that food for the army don't just pop out of thin air; there are families and farms), lots of distinguishable characters and geography (but I could have done with some family trees, and a map), and absolutely no bloat in the prose (the whole two part book runs to just 400 pages -- lesser authors could easily have written several times that). I'm now off to read the rest of Sulien's story.

I took a look at the rear inside flap of the dust jacket, where information about the author is traditionally located, often with an accompanying photograph.
     There was no photo, and the text read, in its entirety:
Jo Walton lives in Wales. The King's Peace is her first novel.
So I was just wondering, Jo, if you're willing to say: did you decline to have anything more revealing than that printed, or did you miss a deadline for submitting a photo and a blurb, or did Tor mess up, or what?

-- William December Starr, rasfw, October 2000

I didn't write it, I didn't get asked to write anything else, I am perfectly happy with that as written.
     There just really isn't anything much else to say about me.
     I'm curious though -- what do you think needed to be mentioned? How I ran away to sea? The years in the brothel in Alexandria? My meteoric rise in the French Foreign Legion? My Hollywood period? The controversy over my handling of Chile's finances? The scandal in Stockholm when I failed the drug-test and had my Nobel taken away? My brief, but glorious, reorganization of Eastern Europe? My idyllic semi-retirement, working as a salmon-wrangler in British Columbia? Surely nobody would be interested in that old stuff...
     I did decline a photo. I rarely look like myself in photos.

-- Jo Walton, rasfw, October 2000

Jo Walton.
The King's Name.
Tor. 2001

rating : 3 : worth reading
review : 19 March 2002

The Peace has been won, but nothing lasts forever. After five years, several kings decide to revolt, egged on by the scheming Morthu. So Urdo and Sulien have to take up arms again, to maintain the Peace.

This continues the tale in the previous volume (the two books together essentially form a short trilogy, with this being the third book), and maintains the high standard set there. Lots of the foreshadowing seen earlier comes to pass here, and there is a good closure to the story. The large sprawling cast list leaves room for several tragedies, several happy endings, and some justice seen to be done. And there is an amusing Introduction, set several centuries later in the same alternate world, casting some doubts on the authenticity of these "Sulien Texts".

I bought this pair in hardback since it seemed as if they were never going to appear in paperback; I'm not sorry I did.