Among Others

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: January 2011
ISBN: 0-7653-2153-X
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 302

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At the opening of Among Others, Morwenna (Mori, for the most part) has saved the world from her mother, who's an evil witch. She's been badly injured in the process, in constant pain in one leg and using a cane to walk. Worse, her twin sister was killed, leaving her alone in a profound way she's never felt before. After subsequent nastiness she rarely talks about, she resorted to social services to get away from her mother and has been put in the care of her father and aunts, who in turn are sending her to a girl's boarding school. Among Others is her journal.

However, very little of the mental image one may build of a fantasy novel starting from that premise is true of this book. Mori is not your typical protagonist, the way magic works is very different from the fantasy norm, and, most profoundly, the tone of this book is unlike anything I've seen before in genre literature. It reaches an accuracy and depth of emotional engagement that's truly special.

Mori's world is one in which fairies exist and magic works, but it's also our world, and most people are oblivious to both. Mori grew up in Wales, amidst the crumbling remnants of fading industry, playing with fairies who love to make their homes in such places. It's a world vividly described, one where the mixing of the past, ruins, imagination, and the wild create a place where the appearance of fairies is simply natural. Most people don't see fairies; one has to believe in them already. And, as Mori puts it, it's tempting to interpret what a fairy would say, or means to say, and produce dialogue like Tolkien, but they're much harder to understand than that. They don't use nouns, or human ways of thinking; they add an alienness to this book that manages to be both wild and familiar at the same time. They're also not the point of the story, even though they play a significant role. They're background, part of Mori's world.

Magic is also part of Mori's world; Mori's mother is a witch, after all, and Mori works some of it herself. But magic is a slippery thing, always explainable, always deniable. It doesn't happen with special effects. It doesn't even happen with the subtle strength of Gandalf, although that's a little closer. Successful magic adjusts the world to fit the results of the spell, and how it was adjusted, and to what extent, is never clear. But unlike most books where magic is slippery, the characters don't shy away from thinking about the difficult bits. The ethics and nature of magic, and the ease with which most people don't believe in it, are something Mori tackles head-on (with some deftly understated conclusions about the ethics of manipulation). But even magic is not the point of this book.

Most of the reviews of Among Others have taken one of two approaches: either portrayed the book as one in which magic is layered ambiguously on the mundane world, a sort of magical realist story, or emphasized Mori's reading. Mori is an avid reader of just about everything, but primarily science fiction and fantasy. She comments on her reading alongside comments on her life, conversations, and reactions. She uses stories to understand life, and uses life to understand stories, and Among Others is full of musings, curious comments, half-followed thoughts, and reactions to books. They're not deep, probing insights (at least most of the time); rather, they're exactly the sort of thing that one would write in one's private journal about a book one just read. Among Others is frequently called a love letter to science fiction, or a book for people who grew up reading SF, because of how much SF is part of Mori's world and how well her comments and reactions capture the reactions of a curious, thoughtful reader to books with mind-expanding ideas.

Both of those things are certainly here, and if either of those sound like something you'd love in a book, then read this one. But I think they also sell Among Others short. The focus on how the book captures the feeling of reading SF as a child was particularly overdone in genre reviews, to the point where I put off reading this book for a bit out of a fear that it might have strayed too far into the insularity of fandom. I didn't really expect that of Walton, but the SF world does occasionally have a tendency to become engrossed in mutual back-patting.

But that's not what this book is at all. Yes, SF plays a significant role in how Mori looks at the world, and reading has a key place in how she comes to terms with the world, but there's so much more to this book than the SF reading references in it.

Among Others is a story, not precisely of growing up, but of figuring out how one wants to fit into the world, and what spaces are available in the world for fitting into. It is not a geek coming of age story (and I could go on at some length at how many infuriating assumptions are buried in that summary I saw in one review). Mori is not coming of age; before the book starts, she's already made some nasty, difficult, adult decisions. What she's doing is quite a bit more subtle, harder, and more familiar. This is a book that cuts sideways through all the stock pictures and stereotypes of what children and teenagers should be like and instead shows a startlingly sharp insight into the thoughts and concerns of one analytical, thoughtful, and intelligent teenager who has had a complicated and mixed life, and who doesn't wallow in her own emotions. It's a book about alienation in a way, but it's not a book about angst, nor is it a book about emotional dramatics. It takes the next step: you're away from everything you've known and among people with whom you have difficulty making connections. Now what?

Among Others does something very mainstream, in that it's not about a grand plot or an earth-shattering event. It's a character novel. But it's a character novel about a sort of character that I've never seen in a mainstream novel: an open-minded, creative, but very practical girl, who has a fairly good mental model of both the world and of other people and tries to apply it in sensible ways, analyzing her mistakes. It is, in short, a deep character study of someone who is neither stupid nor who makes self-destructive or cringe-worthy decisions for the sake of conflict or plot. There's a refreshing lack of worry that something horrible is waiting on the next page, and a refreshing sense that one can trust Mori to show the reader necessary emotion without unnecessary dramatics. There is a story arc here, a clear line of development from the first page to the last, with a satisfying conclusion, but it's very subtle. Like real life, you have to put some thought into figuring out what changed and why.

And the characterization in this book is absolutely superb, in a way that I don't know how to adequately convey. There are books that build more towering pictures of tragic heroes or complex motivations, but those are characters in stories. The uncanny thing about Among Others is that, while Mori is also a character in a story, she simply doesn't feel like one. There is some way in which she's more real than any character I've read about, a way in which I felt like I would recognize her on the street and could sit down and have a conversation with her. That's a common review cliche, when one is particularly impressed with characters or feels a deep connection with them, but in this case there's a difference in kind that I find hard to explain. Mori has a deep solidity and reality to her that's unlike anything I can remember reading before. She doesn't react consistently; she reacts humanly. She changes and doesn't change. She shows herself to the reader without really trying, shows emotion in beautifully understated journal accounts, and became someone I felt like I'd known for years. I've read great novels who have blown me away with their fascinating characters, but Among Others is something else, and something unspeakably special.

It's a lot easier, in a review, to talk about the conception of magic, or the delightful ambiguity between Mori's calm certainty about the nature of the world and the conventional explanation (and how Mori's explanation becomes an extra dimension in the conventional explanation without undermining or taking anything away from it), or about the reading and books and reactions to books. And those are all here, and important, and add greatly to the delight of the story. But I would have read this book, and fallen in love with this book, even if somehow those aspects hadn't been here (although of course they had to be, since they're part of who Mori is). I would read it to hear Mori tell her own story, to see how she understands people while feeling a touch removed from nearly all of them, and for her asides, short digressions, small thoughtful moments, or frissons of understanding.

I devoured this book in about a day, and then immediately passed it to my mother, who (while she reads some SF) didn't know most of the book references here. She devoured it the same way, and is now talking about buying another copy to re-read, and my mother very rarely re-reads books. I mention this just to underscore that you do not need to be a devoted SF fan to love this book, nor do you need to understand the SF references that Mori makes, nor do you need to have read or thought about any of the things Mori reads. And if you're shying away since some descriptions make it sound like it may be too self-referential, too far inside SF fandom, don't worry about that at all. It's no more a problem for the reader than not being Welsh. You'll understand the parts you need to understand, and probably will be thinking about finding some of those books by the end.

In short, Among Others deserves every bit of praise it's been getting and then some. This is a brilliant, amazing, thoughtful book. I fell in love with it, and am already tempted to put aside my current novel and re-read it. Recommended as strongly as I possibly can.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2011-05-29

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21