This is Item 2 in the December Review of Books What Drew Read In 2015. Jo Walton is one of my very favourite authors, and I will pretty much automatically buy anything she publishes.

This is commentary, not a review, and probably contains spoilers.


My Real Children is, in some ways, a very odd novel. It almost, almost, isn't in the SF&F wheelhouse at all, although there's a moonbase and some other future tech elements toward the end. It recounts two ways in which a woman's life goes, splitting at the point where a man asks her to marry him, and she says no, or yes. Where she says no, she has a good and a full life, but the world is less pleasant. Where she says yes, her life is harder, but the world is better. In a nursing home - in two different nursing homes, really - she becomes aware of both timelines. And that's it. The book alternates between the two timelines, provides no explanation at all for the plot device, and contains only a little speculation from the protagonist as to whether she was or could have been responsible for the two different worlds.

Because of this lack of explanation - which puts it more into magical realism than any other genre, if you really need it to go into one box - there are plenty of people who don't like it. I liked it a great deal, for the lead character/s, for the supporting characters, for the development of two parallel and plausible timelines, and overall, for the tone and the treatment. That falls mid-way between Ken McLeod's more recent books (Intrusion and Descent in particular) and A. S. Byatt.

Jo Walton always writes realistic-feeling, relatable characters, even if (in other books) they're dragons, gods, or mortals living in a society constructed with time-travel. This is all the more so in My Real Children, wherein I felt by the end that I knew the protagonist and her families in both timelines as real people.

I appreciated the lack of explanation of the plot device, too; it gives the novel a pared-down, poetic feeling, which is something that you get sometimes in short stories, but very rarely at the novel length. The more I read of speculative fiction in its various forms, the more I value the examples where the author has thought through the mechanics of what happens and why, and then carefully left that out of the end product - because the characters through whom the story is told don't know, don't care, or don't even see it. It avoids the whole infodump problem, and lets the reader fill in the gaps and work out the causes for themselves.
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