Monday, July 16, 2012

Review: Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton
Published : Tor, 2011
Awards Won : Nebula Award, Hugo Award, British Fantasy Society Award (Holdstock Award as of this year)
Awards Nominated : Locus Fantasy Award

The Book:

As a child growing up in Wales, Morwenna played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. When her half-mad mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled--and her twin sister dead.

Fleeing to a father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England-a place all but devoid of true magic. There, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off….”

I’m getting the feeling my blog is going to fill up with a lot of Jo Walton titles in the coming years!  She’s a very talented writer, and I love how each of her novels feels so different from the ones before.  Among Others seems like a book that was written with a specific audience in mind. As someone who falls (at least partially) into that audience, I found a lot to love in Among Others.   

My Thoughts:

The story of Among Others is told through Morwenna’s journal. The novel was convincing as the journal of a teenage girl, but it was also satisfying as a work of fiction.  I think this is a very difficult balance to achieve.  It was well written, but it felt like the voice of a teenager. There was a certain necessary detachment from the events of the story, but it was compensated by the closeness to the protagonist’s thoughts and feelings.  Telling the story through Mori’s journal also resulted in a slow, meandering plot that was more like a ‘slice-of-life’ story than a traditional narrative structure. 

Mori’s journal felt at times like a teenager’s SF review blog, a mild teen drama, or a fantasy story.  I think it is the first of these points that is the most polarizing.  Mori spends most of her time reading, so she comments constantly on the science fiction novels she consumes.  Later in the story, she even recounts discussions about various authors or works that took place in the book club she joins.  For readers who aren’t well-read in 1960s/1970s science fiction, I can see how this might really bog down the story.   I’ve read a fair amount of the works Mori mentioned,  so I think that I fit into the target audience for these portions of the book.   However, even I have to admit that Mori’s comments about the works were often not particularly important for the story.  Her love for the novels—and her ability to connect with others through that love—was central, but the specific name-dropping seemed mostly present to invoke nostalgia in the reader. 

In addition to her love of science fiction, Mori’s belief in magic shapes her world.  I thought Walton’s treatment of the fantasy elements in Among Others was especially interesting and poetic.  There are no fireballs, magic wands, and magical-lightning-filled showdowns.  Walton’s magic is, as Mori would say, “always deniable.”  Even if a spell appears to have worked, it would do so through ordinary means, leaving always the possibility that the success was merely a coincidence.  Mori sees and talks with fairies, but they can only be seen if one already believes in them.  This mundane treatment of magic makes it possible to see the story either as fantastical, or as the tale of a highly imaginative girl.  I liked how skillfully the story walked between the two interpretations, so that it is never completely clear whether magic really does exist or whether Mori just uses her belief in it to give a meaningful shape to the events of her life.

In addition to the science fiction discussions and quiet fantasy elements, the character of Morwenna is another determining factor for the audience of the novel.  Since this is a story of her daily life, told through her journal, the entire story revolves around her thoughts, her opinions, and her experiences.  I think that it might be difficult to become invested in the story if one did not feel any kind of kinship towards Mori.  I doubt that many people can relate to her specific situation—being crippled in the event that killed your twin sister and then being shipped off to an English boarding school.  However, I think a lot of science fiction fans could probably identify with her struggle to find a group of people who shared her interests.  I particularly connected with Mori’s social problems at her new boarding school.  I know what it feels like to move into a closed system of friendships, and find that no one is particularly interested in involving the “weird new girl”.  Despite Mori’s problems, her narrative remained refreshingly low in self-pity, and I enjoyed getting to know her over the 200-odd pages of Among Others.

My Rating: 4.5/5

Among Others is an unusual book targeted towards a specific audience. The story, told through Morwenna’s journal, is a kind of slice-of-life fantasy story about a teenage science fiction fan searching for a community in which she feels she belongs.  Along the way, Mori constantly discusses the many science fiction novels she’s read (mostly 1960s/1970s SF), in a way that will likely be charming to some readers and off-putting to others.  The magic in the story is “always deniable”, where successful spells can easily be explained away by coincidence.  I loved how this created an ambiguity about whether the magic was real, or it was just the frame Mori used to make sense of her life.  Despite differences in the specific circumstances, this story resonated well with me, and I think it will also resonate with many other fans of science fiction.


  1. I am totally smitten with this book. I think you have it spot on for me, that bit about the ambiguity of whether the magic is real or not. This story is certainly autobiographical of a period in Walton's life, which most of us can relate to - that teenage, coming-of-age angst. I can recall the importance that science fiction had in my life at the same stage. The SF references were exactly the stuff I read at the time, probably giving me and other readers from the same area a unfair advantage. It is also very refreshing to read about "my story" from a female perspective.

  2. It's good to hear that you enjoyed it, too! I wasn't a teen in the same time or place, but science fiction was very important to me while I was navigating those years, too. I guess the 1960s/1970s was just a remarkable time for science fiction, because I actually read a lot of the same books in my adolescence, nearly 2 decades later!

    1. Yeh, the 70s were for me all about existential angst ;) I guess Mori's struggle to free herself from her mother's bonds equates to everyone's journey into adulthood. The coming-of-age era certainly has its fair share of magic, both the dark and the wonderful. And for many the lasting influences, sadly, are often the darker overtures. I guess every child will always experience it as a battle to relinquish the parent-child connection.

      It was also particularly enlightening to read this from a female perspective. My cousin introduced me to SF when we were around 11 years old, and I have given her my copy of the book to read. I'm pretty sure it will strike more than just a few chords with her.

      Hyped up or not, this will get my vote for the Hugo, as much as it pains me to see Mielville miss out ;)

    2. It's my top-rank for the Hugo as well, though I did really like "Embassytown". :)

  3. I am really excited about this book. As it is up for a Hugo I'm forcing myself to wait until I either read it for the blog or find out I can read it sooner if it doesn't win. I didn't know much about this one before your review and your high rating makes me even more excited. Some of my favorite books have been the journal entry style. I hope this one ranks up there too.

    1. Now that it's been all hyped up, I hope you like it :). I think this one may well take the Hugo, though I bet Embassytown will get a lot of votes as well. I'll look forward to reading your review!