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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: Among Others
SF Site Review: Farthing
SF Site Review: Tooth and Claw
SF Site Review: The Prize in the Game

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Paul Kincaid

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Jo Walton's latest novel is already being touted as one of the books of the year. I am not about to dissent from that opinion, except that what most critics have picked out for praise is one of the things that bothers me about the book, and what excites me about it hardly seems to have been noticed by other reviewers.

Apart from a brief opening passage set in 1975, Among Others is set very precisely between 5th September 1979 and 20th February 1980. The importance of those dates is something I will come back to shortly. It has to be said right away that the single most important event in the novel occurred sometime between 1975 and September 1979, by inference in the early part of 1979; but though there are numerous hints and references to the event it is never directly described. That vagueness is significant, and again it is something I will come back to.

In outline, we are reading the diary of Morwenna (Mori) Phelps, a teenage girl whose twin sister has been killed in an incident that also permanently damaged Mori's leg. Following this, Mori ran away from her mother and took refuge with her estranged father, whose sisters arrange for her to be placed at a public school, Arlinghurst, "one of the best girls' schools in the country." Through the diary we follow the first term and a half at Arlinghurst, which pretty much follows the trajectory we have come to expect of school stories: Mori is the outsider by reason of her Welsh origins and her bad leg, she neither understands nor accepts school mores, she encounters suspicion and enmity, she makes one or two friends among the other outsiders, she finds a protector on the staff, she acquires true friends (and a boyfriend) outside the school. So far so unremarkable, but two things raise this novel above what would otherwise be a familiar and frankly uninteresting story. The first is that Mori is a fanatical reader of science fiction and her diary is littered with comments on the books she is reading. The second is that Mori is imbued with a sort of magic; the estrangement from her mother and the death of her sister both resulted from a magical battle with her mother, and throughout the novel she sees and occasionally converses with a variety of faerie folk, building up to a return match with her mother.

My discontent with the novel relates to the first of these. My enjoyment of the novel springs from the latter.

Let me start with those very precise dates. Walton is very careful to give the day and date for every entry in Mori's diary, yet in many ways the novel is date-free. Nothing happens that is specific to those particular days, there is no casual reference to any news item occurring at the time (though these were, for instance, the early months of Margaret Thatcher's premiership, a time of civil discord and financial woes), and though we know that other girls in the school listen to music and an early Walkman makes an appearance, we get little sense of the clothes, trends or culture of the period. This is not, in other words, a novel about that period. The reason for the dates lies elsewhere and is two-fold: at that time Jo Walton would have been the same age as her protagonist, and the science fiction novels that fill the pages of Mori's diary are precisely the ones that she would have been reading at the time.

We know, from her appearances at Tor.com, that Jo Walton is a widely-read and astute commentator on science fiction, so the remarks about the books she reads (it seems to average out at about one per day) are everything we might expect. For those of us growing up at the same time, reading the same books, this is a nostalgia-fest that takes us back more accurately and more effectively than any mention of Thatcher or Walkmen. But that is all it does; it may be flattering for those of us who have read the books and share her opinions on most (though by no means all) of the works in question, but it serves no other purpose. Mori's interest in science fiction leads her to a book group at the library, and introduces her to characters who will be important in her story, what's more, her discovery of the 1980 Eastercon in Glasgow serves as a promise of the future that leads her out of the close confines of the novel (though, as someone who was at that particular Eastercon, the idea that it represents freedom in this way seems, at the least, ironic). But these plot elements stem from her interest in science fiction, not from the books themselves, a subtle but important distinction. She learns nothing significant from the novels she reads, they provide no clue that will take her onwards to the next part of the story; any science fiction novels from any period would have fulfilled the same function in the plot. We are left with two conclusions. Either these novels are there because they fit the date, and, it is tempting to assume, the date was chosen because it fits the novels. Or we simply read this as a roman á clef, and imagine that perhaps these particular books really did occupy that much of Jo Walton's diary at the time.

In other words, all this attention paid to the particular science fiction works is unsatisfactory in any reading of the novel as novel. What is unexpectedly satisfactory, however, is the use of magic within the novel, even though any brief summary of the plot would make this part of the book sound like a very routine fantasy indeed.

Walton's previous novel, the superb Lifelode, achieved its effects through the way it domesticated magic. Except for certain key moments, magic was not a thing of dramatic effects, a thing that drained the soul of the user, or any of the familiar economies of magic played out in countless formulaic fantasies. Instead it was subtle, small scale, open to interpretation. Among Others goes even further down that route. We only have Mori's word for it that any magic exists whatsoever, when her boyfriend, Wim, says that he sees the fairies he could as easily be humouring her. And what magic we do see is easy to explain away; indeed, Mori herself more than once points out that for a particular magical consequence to have occurred there must have been massive changes in the underlying nature and history of the world, all to rather trivial effect. It is, in short, much easier to assume a coincidence.

Even her mother, the looming evil absence that hangs over the narrative, can be more readily seen as mad or alcoholic, or both, rather than the awesome but failed witch queen we are asked to believe in. Indeed, given the direction of Mori's imagination, what more natural a way for her to account for the mysterious or terrible or misunderstood events in her life than by the magic she encounters all the time in her reading. We see Mori arranging leaves in a particular pattern, or laying out stones on a window sill, exactly the sort of low-key domestic magic we previously met in Lifelode; but here there is no reason to see it as actual magic. On two occasions, once in the school dorm and once in a hospital bed, when Mori's natural defences are low, her mother seems to stage an attack. On both occasions the attack fails because Mori, in effect, closes her eyes, grits her teeth, and wishes her mother away. Is that magic? Or is it a psychological way of negotiating the traumas of adolescence?

To be honest, it doesn't matter which way you read it. The very fact that the novel hesitates, that it is open to either interpretation, is what makes the book work for me. Forget the flattering but essentially meaningless discussion of various sf novels of the period, that is pablum for the genre masses; read this book for the treatment of magic, read it for the way it can be either realist or fantasy as you choose to read it. That is what makes this novel one of the best books of the year.

Copyright © 2011 by Paul Kincaid

Paul Kincaid is the recipient of the SFRA's Thomas D. Clareson Award for Distinguished Service for 2006. His collection of essays and reviews, What it is we do when we read science fiction is published by Beccon Publications.


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