Review: Among Others

Among Others by Jo Walton

I picked up Among Others on a whim at the library. I’d heard of it vaguely—the Tor blog, naturally, talked about it in the lead-up to its publication, I’d seen it reviewed here and there, and Walton posted a bibliography of every book mentioned in Among Others on her LiveJournal. But despite all that, the synopsis turned me off; I wasn’t quite sure how to reconcile the focus on books and community with the epic battles it promised. But I picked it up at the library nonetheless, and I’m quite glad—the front flap is very misleading.

Among Others finds Morwenna Phelps in 1979, having run away from Wales from her mother to live with her estranged father in England, lost her twin sister, and been crippled in the same accident that claimed her sister. Enrolled in a boarding school, Mori is cut off from her heritage and, more importantly, her magic—while she has no desire to be like her mad mother, who tried to use magic for evil purposes and was stopped by her daughters, she misses the fairies that are found in nature. As Mori comes to terms with the death of her sister, she finds solace, as ever, in books—fantasy and science fiction especially, a love that she shares with her father. But she longs for a community that understands her, her love for books, and the importance of fantasy and science fiction, and documents her first year away from her mother in her diary.

The epic battles between Mori and her mother promised on the front flap never materialize—well, the last one does, but it’s short and focused more on the power of books than thwarting evil. What I particularly enjoyed about Among Others is that you never really knew if magic was real or Mori was just wildly imaginative and hanging onto the games she played with her dead sister, especially after being raised by a woman like her mother. As she explains, magic is easy to deny—it’s more arranging coincidences than anything else, which worries her when she finally discovers a local science fiction book club after she swears to only use magic to stave off harm. Did she call it into existence, which would rob it of meaning? In Mori’s straight-forward rituals (pebbles on the window to keep her mother out) and fears over the best thing in her life being too good to be true, it’s easily to sympathize with her and relate to her as a teenager. This is a novel about coming of age and finding yourself, and I feel that ambiguity was tied to the liminal nature of being an adolescent. Unfortunately, towards the end, magic is confirmed to be real, which doesn’t harm the book (I mean, you can read Mori’s acceptance of magic into her adult life as a parallel to fans accepting their love for “childish” speculative fiction into their adult lives), but lessens the charm for me.

It’s refreshing to see a heroine in a book actually talk about the books they read. As I’m writing this, I’m listening to the Little Women audiobook; while we constantly see Jo with a book, I think they only mention her reading German fairy tales and Shakespeare. True, it was a different time, but it’s a pattern I see a lot—a character is a great reader, but never discusses what they read or, if they do, only one book or series. It’s remarkably odd, for a reader. So it’s wonderful to see Mori, who loves books (there’s a great bit where she unconsciously compares The Lord of the Rings to Scripture), go on about them. She delights in discovering interlibrary loan, she finds meaning in science fiction, she doesn’t particularly care for Victorian children’s fiction—Little Women included, in fact! And she’s also a fan; while a lot of the blurbs make vague references to being an outsider, Mori grapples with the problem of engagement that I, as a fannish person, confront—how on earth are most people not moved by this to the point of action? It’s also a part of Mori’s journey from a community of two that frames her as half of a whole to a community of many that sees her and respects her as an individual. Late in the story, Mori discovers conventions and makes plans to attend one; I would have loved to see it.

I was really taken with this epistolary novel—while I do wish that the setting had retained its charming ambiguity throughout, watching Mori, a fellow bibliophile and fan, negotiate the trials of adolescence, deal with the loss of her twin and the identity issues that followed, and adapt to her new disability was fascinating. Fun is not the word to describe her—she’s earnest and serious and so engaged with the world around her, even if others assume she’s passive due to her age or disability. (That’s part of the reason the book club is so empowering for Mori; it treats everyone with equal respect.) It was satisfying. I do have to say that I was thrown when Mori’s estranged father, drunk, makes a pass at her; Mori, having encountered positive discussions of incest in speculative fiction, wonders if it would have been wrong. This is never brought up again, and we’re invited to look at Daniel sympathetically throughout the rest of the novel. It was just an odd step that felt out of place to me in an otherwise solid piece.

Bottom line: Ignore the ominous synopsis—Among Others is a fairly quiet epistolary novel following Mori Phelps as she negotiates adolescence, grief, and her new disability with the help of speculative fiction and the buddings of fandom. A wonderful little book.

I rented this book from the public library.

14 thoughts on “Review: Among Others

  1. Great review! I loved this one too, largely for the book love and the consequential magic. You’re right, fictional characters who actively discuss the books they read are all too rare.

  2. Well, I’ve always felt the reason that many novels where the narrator is an avid reader avoid delving into specifics because it can come off as self-indulgent on the author’s part. It’s like, gee, do you think the screenwriter of 500 Days of Summer likes The Smiths? I think he does! In fact, after reading the review I’m not convinced that this isn’t the case with this particular novel. But I probably shouldn’t judge without having read it.

    • To be fair, this appears to be very autobiographical for Walton, so her adolescent reading and Mori’s are pretty much one and the same. I don’t know if that would still feel self-indulgent for you, but it might explain it.

  3. What on earth was up with her father that one time? I had absolutely no idea what to make of that. The end of the book dissatisfied me too, although I’m not sure it was for the same reasons that it displeased you.

    But yay for the bookish girl who reads a trillion books! I think maybe authors shrink from saying what their characters read because they’re afraid that it will reveal their own limitations as readers. That’s why I wouldn’t say, if I were writing a book about a bookish girl and I didn’t want to say what the books were.

    • Because Walton is pulling from her own experience, I think she was comfortable with exposing her limitations—plus, it was the ’70s. (I loved watching Mori pour through publishing adverts to try and find other books by authors. Adorable.) But I would definitely be uncomfortable writing about a history-obsessed bookish girl and having to give titles. How would I know?

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