Among Others (2011) by Jo Walton

amongothersI drank down Among Others by Jo Walton as if it was the last drop of cool liquid after a few weeks of being stranded in a desert of detachment, cynicism, and chauvinism. In other words, I read it after reading China Mieville, Paolo Bacigalupi, and Robert Heinlein, tough male writers who are both creative and innovative, yet lack the emotion and optimism that drive many iconic SF/F stories. Because I was essentially starved of these two elements, I may have received Among Others more enthusiastically than expected.

First of all, here is where my alarm bells normally go off: first-person, teenage girl narration. Diary format.

Uh.

I’m a grown up.

Double checks Hugo list. Scans wiki entries. No mention of YA anywhere.

Hmm…

This is why I committed myself to reading all of the Hugo best novels and nominees. This is why I started this blog. I’m a picky reader who is rarely satisfied by a novel. Without commitment to a reading list, I’ll research and research and it takes me ages to decide on the next book to read. With the Hugo list, my choices are set and finite. I can mix up the order, but ultimately the next book I read is somewhere on that list. If I wasn’t committed to this list, I would’ve dropped Among Others before I made it past the first page.

But I’m glad I stayed with it, although in hindsight, my rabid enjoyment of the novel concerns me a bit.

As I said, after enjoying the above mentioned novels, I knew I wanted to read a softer voice. I found it interesting that both the 2010 and 2011 Hugo Best Novel winners were both written by female writers (Among Others by Jo Walton and Blackout by Connie Willis), so I decided to read them back-to-back for a comparison. Although I would say that SF/F is still a male-dominated genre, it isn’t all that unique to find female SF/F writers who win accolades, but it is interesting that two consecutive years yielded the most sought-after SF/F award to women. Also, since starting this blog, I think I have only read two female authors (The Newsflesh Series by Mira Grant and Captain Vorpatril’s Alliance by Lois McMaster Bujold), both of whom adopt the standard detached SF/F style. I was hoping I would find something different with Walton and Willis. Something more magical… whimsical… feminine, in the style of Susanna Clarke (the awesome, my most fave, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell) or Marion Zimmer Bradley (The Mists of Avalon), or even Neil Gaiman in Neverwhere or Anansi Boys. (Can I say I’m looking for a feminine voice and still mention Gaiman? I’d say so, at least for some of his books.) I have yet to finish Willis, but I did find what I was looking for with Walton.

A Welsh teenage girl (Mori) who sees fairies is sent to boarding school in England after her twin sister dies during a battle with their mother, an evil witch. It was pitched as a reverse Harry Potter novel, (yet another children’s series that appears on the Hugo list). In her diary, she reports the mundane events of her new, boring life, including the status of her bum leg (a consequence of her battle with witch-mom), her outcast existence among her posh classmates, her increasingly uncomfortable relationship with her crappy father, and the utter lack of fairies in England. Most importantly, she’s a total SF/F bookworm who shares insights about the books she reads. (She has certainly redirected my reading list.)

Yes, it’s diary-style, which is normally a horrible cop-out, but that’s what kept me turning the pages.  It’s not that the little girl had much to report in each entry, but it was the impression that she was likely an unreliable narrator. I had to read more because I just wasn’t sure I should believe her. (It makes me think that Twilight could have been a decent story if, from the beginning, the reader was nudged into thinking that Bella was delusional. Maybe that’s what Walton was going for in Among Others, although I read in an interview that the unreliable narrator ruse was not intentional. Shame.)

Because Mori is a SF/F booknut who is a victim of massive neglect, trauma, and loss, it’s no stretch to wonder if this poor girl is completely delusional. For most of the story, she has no friends, so there is no one to confirm her experiences. As she starts to develop her “karass” (a call-out to Vonnegut!) I was eager to see if these friends of hers would ever be able to confirm her crazy stories. She thinks she does magic, but it’s always deniable. She sees fairies, but she expresses difficulty in reporting her conversations with them. At some points, I wondered if she even had a twin sister at all. Maybe she’s just a crazy teen who had a fight with her mom, ran away from home, and started making up stories.

For me, it was the deniability of magic that made this book so hard to put down. As the story developed, I could see all kinds of possible conclusions, each of them depending on whether the girl was delusional or not.

Unfortunately, I think my expectations were more grandiose than the actual conclusion.  I foresaw more story than Walton gave us. Based on my expectations, I could see an entire series following the lives of Mori and her strange karass. Even the ending that Walton actually provides makes room for a possible sequel, although Walton has publicly stated that Mori’s story is complete.

Which is too bad because, technically, the context of Among Others would fit well as a 2nd book within a series, with a prequel about her childhood and the battle with her witch-mom, and a follow-up about her new karass and her three weird aunts (who may or may not be witches… again with the deniability.)

Then again, I’m sort of glad the story ended where it did. I’m not sure I could commit to another “Dear Diary” style novel while still carrying my license to be a grown up. I may enjoy reading stories about elves and magic, but let’s at least do it with adult characters and some third-person dignity. (And yet, third-person is the narration choice of fairy tales. What’s with that?)

Regardless of Among Others’ YA hallmarks and weak conclusion, I needed to read something like this. Mieville’s detachment, Bacigalupi’s cynicism, and Heinlein’s chauvinism had me worn down. It’s funny that a genre like SF/F, one that’s based on magic and technology and hope, can also spin dreadful dystopian tales with distant, uncaring characters. I enjoyed those stories from the past few weeks, but I needed some magic. I needed some hope. I wanted to read about a real hero.

And that was the best part of Among Others. Mori is a hero. A true hero who saved the world (twice) and, despite any other obstacles, will continue to have a bright future.

Advertisements

15 thoughts on “Among Others (2011) by Jo Walton

  1. […] 4. Among Others, Jo Walton, 2012 winner  Marketed as a “reverse Harry Potter,” I was surprised I enjoyed this as much as I did. Written in first-person, epistolary format, this is a must-read for fans of YA fiction, and an enjoyable read even if you normally avoid YA fiction. […]

    Like

  2. Funny that I mention Gaiman in my last comment and then come across this review and find you mentioning him.

    Happy that you enjoyed this book. I read it when it first came out after hearing Jonathan Strahan and Gary Wolfe rave about it on their podcast a few weeks before its release. I was completely swept up in it, so much so that I turned around after finishing it and read it aloud to my wife because I knew she would enjoy it and I really wanted to read it again.

    The love letter to reading, particularly science fiction and fantasy, were what drew me to it the most, but I enjoy Mori’s story as well. I thought it worked well. I’m not bothered by the diary/journal format. I first came across it when reading Dracula when I was 11 or 12 and I’ve been a fan of the format ever since.

    For Heinlein I would recommend his juvenile fiction, although if you don’t like YA you may not enjoy these. While he doesn’t entirely get away from some of the gender role attitudes in these, there are more active female characters in them: the mom is a doctor in The Rolling Stones and both she and grandmother end up playing important roles, there is an interesting female character in The Star Beast. My favorite is the shorter work, The Menace From Earth.

    At any rate, glad you enjoyed the review. Walton is a great book reviewer, if you haven’t checked out her Hugo reviews on Tor.com (now collected in the book What Makes This Book so Great) I would recommend checking them out.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      I am familiar with Walton’s review collection, and I’ve heard great things about it, although I try to avoid other people’s reviews until I’ve written my own.

      I’ve noticed that my bias against the 1st person and epistolary forms is more of a bias against female characters because it hasn’t bothered me as much with male characters. I think mainly just being a child of the 80’s, I grew up reading a lot of books of that nature with female characters, so it feels childish to me. It’s a bias I need to correct. You keep stumbling upon my earlier reviews… the ones that are in dire need of a good rewrite 🙂

      I’ll be posting my review of Silverberg’s A Time of Changes this week, more autobiography than epistolary (but what’s the difference really?), and I really enjoyed that particular narrative.

      Like

      • When I find new blogs reviewing the kind of books that I enjoy I tend to scroll back through reviews for awhile. I’ve sadly just come to the end, or rather the beginning, of yours here. Very much enjoying it and look forward to following you in the future.

        Definitely check out Walton’s Award’s posts and/or reviews when you get a chance, she is very entertaining.

        Like

        • fromcouchtomoon says:

          Great and thanks! I have lurked on your site before, but it’s been a busy year and I just haven’t put myself out there as much I probably should. I’ll make sure to visit you more often.

          Like

          • It truly is impossible to keep up with things. Life is busy, there are a ton of blogs out there reviewing fiction that I am passionate about, like yours, and of course the piles of books we all want to read only grow week to week, they never seem to get smaller.

            Speaking of blogs to read, I’m curious if you’ve visited Joachim’s site. He solely reviews classics and I enjoy his reviews.

            http://sciencefictionruminations.wordpress.com/

            Like

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            Yes, Joachim has been quite supportive of my blog, and he has been a valuable commenter and mentor since I started dipping my toes into the vast waters of vintage fiction. I participated in his Michael Bishop review series last spring and we’ve got something else cooked up to post in a couple of weeks as well 🙂 We also tweet back-and-forth pretty actively when I’m reading something he has strong opinions about (if you can imagine Joachim having strong opinions about anything ;-P)

            Liked by 1 person

          • I couldn’t remember if it was his blog where I got the link to yours or not. I also participated in the Bishop event, it was fun. I had not tried Bishop’s work before that.

            Like

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            I remember that now! It was my first Bishop as well, but I’ve also got Brittle Innings down as an upcoming spring read.

            Like

          • There were some really solid short stories in that collection I read.

            Liked by 1 person

          • fromcouchtomoon says:

            And Joachim’s reviews have influenced my own TBR list too often to count 🙂

            Like

  3. I too drank this down like a glass of water after a desert. Though I think in my case it was more of loving seeing this other SFF geek devouring books than a need for a change in style from previous reads. And holy shit would I love to read a prequel and sequel to this, but at the same time am glad I will never have the answers as to whether any of this is real that, for example, a prequel would be kinda forced to provide.

    Like

    • fromcouchtomoon says:

      Yeah, I really liked this one and, like you, the protag’s love for SF had much to do with it, methinks. I also just thought the protag was pretty darn cool!

      Like

  4. Rabindranauth says:

    Just finished reading this. I really enjoyed it. Makes me feel as a failure as a bibliophile, though, hah. What I like about the tale is that it shows how someone who’s experienced so much hurt, and is a reader, reacts to a less than stellar daily life. Read. Voraciously, widely, constantly, reading. And only ever really coming to life when talking about books. I see a little of myself in her. Wonderful book. Very far out my usual reads, but I’m glad my reading list took me there! [I’m trying to read my way through WWEnd’s Top Nominated books]

    Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s