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Books : reviews

Jo Walton.
Tooth and Claw.
2003

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.
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.
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 Tor.com 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.
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.
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.’

FACTS FOR TRAVELLERS

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

Jo Walton.
Farthing.
2006

Jo Walton.
Ha'penny.
Tor. 2007

Jo Walton.
Half a Crown.
Tor. 2008

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.

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