I just realized that I never posted my old review of Jo Walton’s Among Others here. With the release of the author’s essay collection What Makes This Book So Great (my review), I thought this would be a good time to remedy that. (You’d think I would have remembered to do this when it won the Hugo Award, right? Ah well.)
Kids nowadays have it easy. If you’re into fantasy, there’s a good chance that the books you like have a devoted following and a few dedicated web sites. There may be movie franchises and/or an HBO series about them. You can buy Team Jacob/Team Edward shirts, Harry Potter glasses and a Game of Thrones calendars. There may be book release parties, even people sleeping in front of the bookstore when the next book is due out. There’s GoodReads, Shelfari and Librarything, and even if you’re not on one of those sites, it’s never been easier to connect with other fans and with the authors themselves. (Note: funny how dated the references in a review can sound just three years later, no?)
Growing up in the seventies, it was considerably harder to meet like-minded readers or even just find out about the existence of books you might want to read: as unreliable as Amazon release dates can be, they’re at least an indication that the author is a) still alive and b) working on the next book in the series. Back then, all you had were the order forms in the back of paperbacks and whatever happened to be stocked in your local library or bookstore. Being a budding SFF fan was a lot more work back then than it is nowadays.
Take Morwenna, the main character of Jo Walton’s excellent new novel Among Others. Her main passion in life — aside from magic — is reading science fiction and fantasy. She lives her life thinking about Ursula K. Le Guin, Roger Zelazny and Kurt Vonnegut Jr. When she runs away from home — after successfully preventing her mother’s attempt to gain dark magical powers but in the process becoming crippled and losing her twin sister — one of her main concerns is picking the right books to take along. Whatever else is going on in her strange, lonely life, the early masterworks of science fiction and fantasy are always there for her, and if one famous saying guides her, it might be the famous Erasmus quote: “When I have a little money, I buy books; and if I have any left, I buy food and clothes.”
Among Others is essentially the diary of one significant stage of Morwenna’s life: after running away, her custody is assigned to her previously absentee father, but because he lives with (and is controlled by) his three sisters, Mori quickly finds herself sent to boarding school. A Welsh girl in England, crippled and shy, she’s already an outsider even before she gets thrown into the brutal politics of an all-teenage-girls boarding school. As Mori comments, in her typical wry way: “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.”
And “diary” is meant literally here: the novel actually consists of Mori’s day-by-day diary entries, describing her arrival at her father’s house, her move to the boarding school, occasional trips back home and so on. Before you start thinking that Morwenna is a female and well-read version of Adrian Mole, let me assure you that this diary makes for much more interesting reading than you might expect, because Mori’s way of looking at the world is consistently fascinating — and not just because she can speak to spirits. She’s funny, snarky and self-deprecating, and of course well versed in SF and fantasy. It’s a true pleasure to read how she deals with the abrupt changes in her life, the prison-like atmosphere of boarding school, and her mother’s attempts to contact and control her. Witnessing her growing confidence and the gradual expansion of her social circle, I genuinely found myself rooting for her.
I doubt that someone who doesn’t love SF and fantasy would have the same appreciation for Among Others, because it sometimes seems that Mori’s feelings about the books she reads are more important than the actual plot of the novel. Mori’s excitement about finding other SFF readers, or discovering a new Roger Zelazny novel in a bookstore, is simply infectious. On the other hand, if you’re not familiar with the books and authors she frequently mentions, Among Others might not have the same impact on you. Confession: I haven’t read Cat’s Cradle by Kurt Vonnegut Jr., so I wasn’t familiar with some of that novel’s made-up vocabulary, which Mori applies to her own life several times, but thanks to Wikipedia I learned what a granfalloon and a karass are — and I’m now also very curious to read this book! Still, whether you get the exact references or not, anyone who spent some of their darker teenage years finding comfort in books will almost automatically identify and empathize with Mori. (Seeing how absurdly happy she gets when discovering that inter-library loans are not only available but free, I found myself wishing I could transport myself to her time and area to hand her a fully loaded e-book reader.)
Aside from the genuine love for science fiction and fantasy that permeates every ounce of this novel, it also features a loving picture of an isolated, intelligent young woman finding her place in life, and a simple but solid present-day fantasy plot that slowly unfolds to reach a satisfying conclusion. Anyone who enjoyed Graham Joyce’s The Tooth Fairy will probably love Among Others (and vice versa). The novel reads smoothly, is never boring, and is very hard to put down. Also, Jo Walton’s concept of “deniable magic” made me reconsider magic and its “causality” (for want of a better word) in a whole new way.
Exactly how much of Among Others is autobiographical I don’t know, but if Jo Walton’s fascinating blog entries at Tor.com are an indication, there’s at least one quality she undoubtedly shares with Mori: her love for science fiction and fantasy. There’s a wonderful passage in Among Others: without planning, Mori and some friends find themselves heading towards the bookstore almost unwittingly. One person mentions that sunflowers are “heliotropes” — they automatically orient themselves towards the sun — and then says that Mori and her friends must be bibliotropes. Borrowing that wonderful word, I think it’s fair to say that Among Others by Jo Walton is a novel for bibliotropes. Highly recommended.
This review was originally published at Fantasy Literature on February 10th, 2011.
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I have often reflected as I write now how much easier it is to be a fan now than when I started, back in the late 1980s. It’s hard to image how the SF community developed without the internet.
That said, I haven’t read this book, but probably should.