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Book Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Posted on February 4, 2011 uncategorized

Among Others is an evocative, subtle, and mostly brilliant fantasy novel on the themes of dealing with loss, growing up, learning to live, and how amazing the new Heinlein novel is. People who grew up inhaling SF and fantasy books are, by and large, going to recognize themselves pretty strongly. Not surprisingly then, many SF writers who have reviewed the book on line have raved. I’ll rave too, with some quibbles that we’ll get to in a bit.

It’s 1979, and Mori is a fifteen-year-old Welsh girl being sent to boarding school in England. We quickly learn that her twin sister died in a car accident about a year earlier, and that Mori has been given to the care of a father she hasn’t seen since she was a small child.

We also learn about the fairies. Turns out that Mori and her sister can see fairies across the Welsh countryside. And they can do magic. Mori’s sister was killed when the two of them effectively saved the world from their evil witch of a mother.

In the novel’s preface (five years earlier), we see Mori and her sister magically destroying a factory by dropping flowers in a pond (we never find out exactly why). They expect something flashy, and in fact believe they have failed, until the next day when they find out the factory has been closed.

Later, Mori explains how magic works, and it’s not like it does in books.

It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an areoplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic

[…] If it’s like books at all, it’s more like The Lathe of Heaven than anything. We thought the Phurnacite would crumble to ruins before our eyes when in fact the decisions to close it were taken in London weeks before, except they wouldn’t have been if we hadn’t dropped those flowers…It always works through things in the real world and it’s always deniable.

It’s hard for me to overstate how brilliant I think that paragraph is. It’s evocative, describes magic that is genuinely uncanny and weird, and also has a lot of depth in the way it affects the story. Plus it has an SF reference, like nearly everything else Mori does.

There are many things I loved about his novel. Mori reacts to her situation and its loneliness by reading a lot of SF and fantasy, which she namechecks, reviews, and comments on continually. This part is a lot of fun, especially if you’ve read most of the books, and it’s not a bad guide to future reading.

She’s smart, sensitive, and clearly trying to figure out how to go about living after you’ve saved the world among a group of people who don’t know and wouldn’t believe you anyway. Eventually Mori works some magic, then spends a lot of time wondering exactly how disruptive she’s been and the ethics thereof – there’s a lot of free-floating dread and eeriness because of the way magic works.

Walton deliberately subverts your expectation of plot in this book, not least by starting the book a year after the world-saving part, which is conventionally, you know, sort of the climax of these kinds of books. There are other cases, too, where we’re lead to believe that there might be some kind of conventional fantasy menace happening, only to have reality more or less take the air out of it. (That said, the ending, at least in terms of where Mori winds up, is quite satisfying.)

Ironically given that I’m writing this, I wish I had read fewer reviews of the book – I think it messed with my expectations a little (in particular, I expected things to be tied up more cleanly at the end). What you have is a very smart, somewhat nostalgic look at 1979 without a whole lot of conventional plot, and I think that your reaction to the book may depend on how willing you are to identify with the way in which Mori uses books. (In a weird way, the book reminded me of Almost Famous, in that they are about immersing yourself in a particular time and place to be a fan of something – the kid in the movie gets to live with his heroes, while Mori gets to actually live in a fantasy world. I’m way more interested in late 70s SF fandom, though, than mid 70s Rock Fandom.)

Much like Walton’s Lifelode (also highly recommended), at about the 1/3 way through this book, I realized that I wasn’t sure where the author was going, but I was enjoying the characters so much that I didn’t care. I still felt that way at the end, but wished there was just a little more meat to the narrative. Still, I loved this book, and if you looked to SF and fantasy as a teenager as a way to go to places that were amazing, you’ll probably love it too.



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