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.

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