What a clever, unusual book this is! It’s kind of a “book within a book” and is one of the most interesting experimental books I’ve read. I have to admit that the initial ancient Celtic-style stream of consciousness by the book’s narrator at the beginning took a bit of getting used to as I desperately struggled to figure what was going on. But once I caught on (about 10% of the way in) that our narrator is sort of a self-aware Muse with a distinct personality inside of Sylvia’s head, I relaxed into what turned out to be quite an enjoyable journey.
The narrative alternates between the discussions between Sylvia, an aging fantasy writer who may or may not be dying, and her muse, the nameless narrator. We also follow along with the latest fantasy novel that Sylvia is writing – a fusion between Shakespeare’s The Tempest and The Twelfth Night that takes place in Ilyria, one of the worlds that Sylvia wrote about in her earlier books.
It is in Ilyria where we meet several Shakespearean characters, and we learn that it’s also a place where immortality is possible. It actually took me a moment to realize that the title of this book comes from the original title of The Twelfth Night (The Twelfth Night, Or What You Will).
So the narrator/Sylvia’s Muse is trying to convince her to go to Ilyria before she dies so they can continue to be immortal together, and in doing so, he steers her new story in that direction.
What’s interesting here is that in Sylvia’s chapters, we learn about her challenging and painful past and how our narrator fits into it all. There’s a lot of different moving parts and layers to this novel, and I found it so much fun to be carried along with them.
I will say that this isn’t the sort of story you can sit back with your feet up and mindlessly sail through; it requires careful attention and the ability to quickly switch gears even mid-chapter. That’s not to say that the story is difficult to follow, because it’s not — as long as you don’t let your attention waver too much. It might also be helpful for the reader to be a bit familiar with the storyline of The Twelfth Night and The Tempest plays, as doing so could increase your enjoyment of the story.
There are a plethora of themes and subplots in this book. It’s about art, creation, immortality, mortality, Italian history, magic, myths, and Shakespeare, but it’s also about child abuse, emotional trauma, grief, and spousal abuse, and all of it comes together cohesively in the narrative. I really enjoyed all the ideas in this story and how it all went in so many exciting and fascinating directions.
All in all, I loved this magical gem of a book about a writer’s life, and the world and characters that she created. I feel Shakespeare enthusiasts would especially enjoy this book though prior Shakespeare knowledge is not necessary — just helpful. Though I’m not always a tremendous fan of speculative fiction, I thought this book was brilliant, and I’m so glad it came to my attention. I’d definitely read more by this author.
A huge thank you to Netgalley and MacMillian-Tor/Forge for providing me with a review copy of this book.