Among Others by Jo Walton

I’ve written on many various occasions that reading books about books is one of the most incredible things ever in this world. Doing so never fails to put a smile on my face or send me to a world of where unicorns and magic really do exist. All of these things happened as I read Among Others. Even aside from just a visceral OMG!HAPPINESS! response, this book is beautifully written and carefully constructed, all of which it makes it one of the loveliest, not to mention heartwarming, books I’ve read this year.

The story draws on many events and circumstances of the author’s own childhood and teenage experiences, lending a semi-autobiographical aspect to the story. Still, this book is very much about Morwenna, a Welsh teenager in the 1979 who can see and talk to fairies and perform magic. Mori’s mother is mad and a witch, and an attempt to stop her from gaining more power results in the death of Mori’s twin sister and the crippling of her leg. Afterward, Mori is placed in the care of her father whom she’s never met and sent to an all-girl’s boarding school in England. Living in new, unpleasant circumstances, Mori’s love of science fiction is what keeps her sane. Still, Mori is tempted to use magic to give her a place and group of people with which to belong to, and her mother remains as an ever-present threat.

The book is told through Mori’s diary entries, which were written in a detailed manner without losing their diary-like quality. Certain thoughts or explanations aren’t included because Mori doesn’t want to write about them, which gives the entries a personal feel that many books written in a diary format don’t have. Mori herself is a withdrawn person, set outside and apart from her home and the family she lived with and grew up among. Her intelligence and sensible nature set herself apart from her new classmates, as does her crippled leg. Combined with the fact that she considers many of the social conventions she’s expected to follow to be ridiculous and her somewhat dodgy family history means she is, effectively, a complete outsider. As such, her view and understanding of the world is wildly different from that of everyone around her, which adds to the personal nature of the diary entries. She’s prickly and cold on the outside, but her love for books and her loved ones know no bounds. There were times when I thought Mori felt too cold and detached, which made her less sympathetic, but on the whole I loved reading about her and admired her bravery and her determination to make something out of her situation. I wish I could be as brave as she is, especially when it comes to voicing my own opinions in a public setting.

Of course, a big reason why I loved Mori was because of her love of speculative fiction and her avid consumption and ponderings on the books she’s read. A really cool thing is that she includes all the names and authors of the books she reads, which led to the creation of another “books to look out for” list. I’m not well read in old school SF (the only authors whose books I’ve read extensively are Anne McCaffrey and Marion Zimmer Bradley), but I would like to become better acquainted, particularly with books that aren’t hard science fiction because those put me to sleep. Integral to the entire book are a love of science fiction and fantasy and a love of reading. Anyone who has grown up with books as constant companions and for whom reading influenced their childhood in a way little else did can find something to identify with in this book. One of my favorite quotes is about libraries, of which she uses both the one in the school, the town, and the interlibrary loan system:

“Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”

As a regular library user since I was nine, I absolutely agree.

This book falls more under the “magic realism” label than pure fantasy, and magic here works through logic used to explain religious belief and the concept of fate. Magic does not work directly, but manipulates events and people so that the desired effect occurs. For instance, Mori does magic to bring together a group of people that she can belong with. However, it is easy for other people to brush off whatever occurs as coincidence or as predetermined by multiple other factors. In this case, magic is like fairies. You believe in it or you don’t. The fairies themselves are just as difficult to fully pin down. They exist, but have no identifiable origins, desires, or motivations, and they can only work magic through human assistance. It’s a quiet magic system, and it took some mental adjusting to get used to, but it meshes well with reality, and if magic did exist in our world, I think this would be the most probable form it would take.

I’m having a really hard time writing this. I’m trying to show why this book is as amazing and wonderful as it is, and I feel like I’m doing poorly. I raced through it in two days, even though I wanted to slow down and savor it, but I couldn’t help myself. The story is deeply personal, and it’s that aspect, combined with the writing, content, and Mori herself, that make this book as terrific as it is. It has books, it has magic and fairies and growth and love and sex positivity and a whole lot more in between. Just… just read it. I can’t explain myself anymore than I already have.

Published in: on June 29, 2011 at 10:52 PM  Leave a Comment  

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