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Among Others
Jo Walton
Tor, 302 pages

Among Others
Jo Walton
Jo Walton was born in 1964 in Wales. She won the John W. Campbell Award for best new writer in 2002 and the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. She now lives in Montreal.

Jo Walton Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: Farthing
SF Site Review: Tooth and Claw
SF Site Review: The Prize in the Game

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

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Jo Walton writes a regular series of reviews of old books, mostly SF and Fantasy, for the blog at Tor.com, and in the bio information after her reviews it says "She's published two poetry collections and nine novels, most recently Among Others, and if you liked this post you will like it." And so you will, for Among Others is about a teenaged girl from Wales who is a voracious reader, especially of SF and Fantasy. Much of the book is her impressions of the books she's reading... for someone like me, who was a teenaged boy from Illinois at roughly the same times, voraciously reading SF and Fantasy, one of the delights of this book is to argue with the narrator, Morwenna Phelps, called Mor. (No, the flip side of Empire Star (Tom Purdom's The Tree Lord of Imeten), is not "just rubbish," though it's not Empire Star either. No, Dodie Smith's The Starlight Barking is not better than The Hundred and One Dalmatians... etc.) Another delight is to cheer her along as she discovers more treasures, and to be delighted to agree with her when she praises something like John Brunner's Times Without Number that is obscure enough these days that one feels kinship with her for liking it. And we are also supposed to get the jokes, as when she buys I Capture the Castle expecting an historical novel.

But in a way it is unfair for me to foreground that aspect of the book in a review. Not because it isn't a central aspect -- it certainly is. But because Among Others is about a lot more than "the books Mor reads," and because I think that it will still appeal to readers who don't understand why Mor is so excited when she can get a copy of The Number of the Beast, and who don't know right away that she'll be disappointed. Among Others is in reality two other sorts of books in one: a coming of age story about a 15-year-old girl dealing with a fraught family situation and a new school and all the regular things adolescents deal with; and also a fantasy about fairies and a Dark Queen manqué, with some really neat magic. And in these contexts Mor's love of books, and the kind of books she loves, are important elements of her character. She wouldn't be Mor without that, so the book comments are necessary to her depiction.

So, anyway, what's going on here? Morwenna is a Welsh girl, with an identical twin named Morganna (also called Mor), and with an involved (and lovingly detailed) family history, living in the valleys in South Wales. But some months before the main action of Among Others, there was a terrible accident and Mor's sister dies, while Mor is sufficiently injured that she still uses a cane and walks with pain. Mor blames her mother for what happened, though somewhat indirectly -- it seems her mother, a somewhat dreadful and rackety woman (as best we can tell) is also a magic user, and had plans to became a Dark Queen, or something like. So Mor and Mor, guided by the fairies, did something to thwart her. Paying a terrible price. And now Mor has run away from home, and been placed with her father in England, who left her mother when the children were infants. Mor's father has one good trait -- he's an SF fan -- one quite disturbing trait (which I'll let the book reveal), but is mostly a rather ineffectual man under the thumb of his wealthy sisters. And these sisters quickly deposit Mor at the private school, Arlinghurst, that they attended.

The book covers roughly a school year at Arlinghurst. It's a fairly typical English private school, or so it seems to me based on those depictions I've read (i.e. there's a lot of snobbery, and some love of sports, and nerdy girls like Mor get looked down on). She does have defenses -- her generally excellent academic ability, for one, and a presumably hard-won ability to not care TOO much about what fools think of her, for another. And she makes a couple of friends among other outsiders -- an Irish girl and a Jewish girl. She also finds refuge in a couple of libraries, and sympathetic librarians, and eventually in an SF club she joins.

But there is also the issue of magic, and of her mother, who is still potentially a menace. What truly delights here is the depiction of magic, and the depiction of the fairies. Fairy is just Mor's name for them -- they are strange creatures, sometimes ugly and sometimes fabulously beautiful. They speak, if they deign to, rather oracularly (and in Welsh). And they guide Mor, sometimes, in doing magic. But magic is strange -- it seems to act in a fashion unstuck in time, and rather indirectly. And there are moral issues. Mor and her sister once did magic that seemed to work by causing someone to die (very indirectly). And Mor worries that magic can manipulate innocent people -- particularly, when she wishes for a karass (a Kurt Vonnegut word meaning a sympathetic group of people), she soon finds the SF club. Then she is forced to wonder -- were these people manipulated to form this club against their real will? These sorts of questions are good questions to ask about any magic, or indeed most of our actions, and they give the book a moral center. The plot itself is resolved nicely, with some (but not all) details about Mor's history, and her sister and mother, revealed slowly (with a nice natural twist or two), and with a magical confrontation that brings some closure to Mor's personal issues -- while other issues remain, just as in anyone's life.

Well, I've been nattering along for some time. That's because I loved Among Others. No doubt this is partly because I am so centrally the base audience for this book. After all, I read Jo Walton's Tor.com blog posts and I like them! I'm also only a few years older than Morwenna (who was born the same year Jo Walton was born, in Wales, and shares other biographical details like having gone to school aged roughly 15 in or near Oswestry, England -- but beware, always, of making too many assumptions about strict autobiographical accuracy in a novel). But I think I really loved the book because it's just a wonderful book -- with an involving main character, a strong narrative voice, a solid plot, both in its realistic "coming of age" sense and its fantastical sense, and with some very well done and original fantastical elements. And the last line is perfect!

Copyright © 2011 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent. Stop by his website at http://www.sff.net/people/richard.horton.


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