Reviews Logo
SearchHomeContents PageSite Map
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: 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 David Soyka

There's been considerable buzz generated by Jo Walton's Among Others (indeed, there are at least two other mostly positive reviews of the book on this site alone, while Amazon named it the number one Best Fantasy/SF Book of 2011 So Far) largely because it is especially written for fandom. Anyone who has sought solace in the pages of fantasy and science fiction as an escape from adolescent ennui will immediately identify with the narrator, Morweena Phelps (aka Mori), a smart Welsh teenager banished to boarding school, ostracized from her peers both because of her intelligence and physical impairment, but who finds a safe haven (and a boyfriend) in the meetings of a local library's science fiction book club.

It's an insider's book not just because of the myriad references to such iconic figures as Samuel R. Delany, Philip K. Dick, Robert A. Heinlein and, big daddy of them all, but perhaps not nearly as hip as it once was since the Peter Jackson cinematic trilogy, The Lord of the Rings. More importantly, it's the evocation of how you felt as a teenager in first discovering authors whose extraterrestrial or otherwise fantastical settings somehow seem to be speaking directly to your awkward, too-smart-for-your-own-good, virginal kid self. And, moreover, that there are other people like you who feel exactly the same way.

That's both the novel's strength and its drawback. I'm guessing if you aren't in the demographic whose adolescence roughly coincides with the author's (i.e., late 20th century) this might not be quite as enchanting; while the psychology may be the same, the "entry drugs" for genre today aren't Heinlein or Dick and certainly not Delany, though possibly still Tolkien, but Harry Potter or YA vampire romances or, worse, their cinematic counterparts. And it's kind of hard to consider yourself an outsider if your definition of what makes you that is reading popular books precisely calculated to target a widespread adolescent audience. I can just imagine some 15-year-old picking this up and going, oh, cool, an outcast teen-ager exiled to a school where you have to wear uniforms and suffer the popular kids just like at Hogwarts and then going, but what's all this stuff about Asimov and Zelazny and Tiptree, for god's sake? Who in the hell are they? Though it'd be nice to think maybe such a reader might be prompted to pick them up to see what the fuss is all about.

However, there's an added twist that may still hold our young reader's attention. Mori is not merely a geek whose limp makes her incapable of playing sports, she's a geek with a limp who talks to fairies. Of course, fantasy stories appeal to adolescents precisely because they identify with magically-endowed protagonists, which presents not being normal desirable, even if it is ultimately not by choice. Moreover, Mori's predicament is also all her mother's fault, and what teenaged girl doesn't feel that to be the case? Not only is Mori rendered a painful cripple thanks to her mad mother's dabbling in the dark arts, her twin sister is killed. Talk about your parental issues!

However, the portrayal of fairies and magic (including the ethics of every teenager's fantasy, to make people like you) are largely backdrop to the reading list. The magical parts of this coming of age tale are rather flat, with cursory depictions of the mad mother, the doppelgänger sister, and an inept and absent father who ultimately turns out to be a good guy (and is curiously portrayed initially as a drunken molester, even if the ostensible purpose is to namecheck Heinlein's Time Enough for Love and Theodore Sturgeon's once daring "If All Men Were Brothers, Would You Let One Marry Your Sister?") all of whom are mostly relegated to offstage mentions.

One reason for this is that the story is told solely from the perspective of Mori's diary entries. Which raises the question of whether we have a classic "unreliable narrator" here. Perhaps the reason you don't get much of a handle on the witchy mother or the lost soul sister or what they have to do with larger scheme of good versus evil characteristic of these fantasy situations may be that they don't exist other than as part of Mori's imagination. We have no evidence that Mori can see fairies, or that she can teach someone else to see them, other than that she says she can. Might this be some kind of disturbed psychological projection to make one's own uncomfortable but otherwise unremarkable dreary dilemma more bearable?

Walton hints at this interpretation in the opening diary entry:

  Think of this as a memoir. Think of it as one of those memoirs that's later discredited to everyone's horror because the writer lied...

Indeed, the story ends with Mori concluding that she won't use magic to "make my life unreal or go against the pattern" (p. 302) which might be perhaps that she doesn't need the illusion of magic to cope anymore. She's come to realize that adults aren't nearly as bad or as stupid or even as evil as they first seem, that nobody is perfect and you yourself make dumb mistakes just like grown-ups because, after all, you're human, too. And that life does get better and more interesting when you finally have someone to share it with. And, best of all, that just by getting older you can escape the horrors of school and adolescent awkwardness.

Which is a kind of magic that doesn't have much need of fairies anymore, except maybe to read about them.

Copyright © 2011 David Soyka

David Soyka is a former journalist and college teacher who writes the occasional short story and freelance article. He makes a living writing corporate marketing communications, which is a kind of fiction without the art.

SearchContents PageSite MapContact UsCopyright

If you find any errors, typos or anything else worth mentioning, please send it to
Copyright © 1996-2014 SF Site All Rights Reserved Worldwide