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Among Others (Hugo Award Winner - Best Novel) Paperback – January 3, 2012
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From Publishers Weekly
Starred Review. World Fantasy Award–winner Walton (Tooth and Claw) turns the magical boarding school story inside out in this compelling coming-of-age tale. Welsh teen Morwenna was badly hurt, and her twin sister killed, when the two foiled their abusive mother's spell work. Seeking refuge with a father she barely knows in England, Mori is shunted off to a grim boarding school. Mori works a spell to find kindred souls and soon meets a welcoming group of science fiction readers, but she can feel her mother looking for her, and this time Mori won't be able to escape. Walton beautifully captures the outsider's yearning in Mori's earthy and thoughtful journal entries: "It doesn't matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books." Never deigning to transcend the genre to which it is clearly a love letter, this outstanding (and entirely teen-appropriate) tale draws its strength from a solid foundation of sense-of-wonder and what-if. (Jan.)
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
With a deft hand and a blazing imagination, fantasy writer Walton mixes genres to great effect. Elements of fantasy, science fiction, and coming-of-age novels combine into one superlative literary package that will appeal to a variety of readers across age levels. After engaging in a classic good-magic-versus-bad-magic battle with her mother that fatally wounds her twin sister, 15-year-old Morwenna leaves Wales and attempts to reconnect with her estranged father. She was sent to boarding school in England, and her riveting backstory unfolds gradually as she records her thoughts, feelings, and experiences in a series of journal entries. An ominous sense of disquiet permeates the nonlinear plot as Morwenna attempts to avoid a final clash with her mother. In addition to casting an irresistible narrative spell, Walton also pays tribute to a host of science-fiction masters as she peppers Morwenna’s journal with the titles of the novels she devours in her book-fueled quest for self-discovery. --Margaret Flanagan --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Perhaps because of that, the work suffers from loose threads. The novel regulalry holds interesting scraps of ideas up to the light--but just for a moment, before setting them aside. Many of the pieces cohese more or less, but most have unfinished edges, and several are never integrated at all. Some of the looseness can be explained as a trait of the narrator, but some of it reads instead as a little carelessness by the author.
The prose is lively and charming. The narrator's voice captures the simultaneous over-and under-confidence of awkwardly coming of age, and the other-ness of self and place and people that attends being a certain kind of teen. In parts the language is consciously overwrought, but not too much so, and with a wry edge that may feel familiar to anyone who remembers feeling older than her peers at that age. It is an easy, fluid read in that respect. The setting is beautifully sketched, full of light and shadow.
The work includes a few discussions of sexual activity and a few sexualized encounters; the material is entirely appropriate in context. I really appreciated the inclusion of the girl narrator's sexual perspective; it read as frank and genuine, age appropriate, and not overly sexualized. Which is to say, it felt real and reasonable in the work as a whole. One incident stood out as not carrying its weight; in one scene, the narrator's absentee father gets drunk and briefly attempts to initiate a sexual encounter with her. The narrator brushes it off, and the incident is unresolved and unaddressed in the rest of the novel. But overall, I was grateful that the author included a girl's perspective on teen sexuality, which generally is omitted entirely in genre novels. Or, worse, where the genre includes any indication of female sexual agency, it is to exclude the woman from magic. I'm looking at you, everything from unicorn legends to C.S. Lewis to Lev Grossman. Among Others is a subtle antidote to that brand of casual sexism.
Like Hamlet, Among Others can be interpreted through at least two different ways: an unreliable narrator struggling with mental illness following a terrible off-screen tragedy, or a narrator beset by epic and mundane evils and a little bit of magic. This is a real strength of the novel, and a layer of depth that provides room for discussion and re-reading. I think the author intends us to land on the side of magic, but I fell slightly on the other side of the line. For some, that will be a criticism of the novel; for me, it's something of a credit to the author. Among Others contains people and places sufficiently solid, and invokes magic so subtly, that the magic resolves as the narrator's wishful thinking rather than a real force in the story.
Ultimatley, the work is lovely, but a little disappointing in its drifting, unrealized potential. I found much of it beautiful and intriguing; I just wish those pieces, and their interactions, recieved fuller treatment. I recommend Among Others particularly for its heartfelt shout-outs to classic science fiction and fantasy; its dialogue with and subversion of the tropes of those works; its female narrator; its painterly prose; and its delicate balance between potential realities.
Have you ever noticed that when you’re young time oozes like syrup, but as you get older it runs like water? Psychologist Jeremy Dean confirms this observation in his article “10 Ways Our Mind Warp Time.” He says there are studies which show “people in their 20s are pretty accurate at guessing [time] … but people in their 60s systematically overestimate it, suggesting time is passing about 20% more quickly for them.” So how does an author create this illusion in a novel? Jo Walton seems to have found just how to capture it in her fantasy novel for young adults, Among Others.
Walton first captures our attention by opening with a pivotal moment in the young heroine’s life. Written as a journal entry for May 1st 1975, we watch as 11-year-old Morganna, and her identical twin, Morwenna, approach the Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi. Their goal is to destroy the factory with fairy magic because it “looked like something from the depths of hell, black and looming with chimneys of flame, reflected in a dark pool that killed any bird or animal that drank from it. The smell was beyond description.” Our heroines are challenged by the looming presence around the factory, which has “no vegetation here, not even dead trees. Cinders crunched underfoot, and clinker and slag threatened to turn our ankles.” And there is a sign warning about dangerous watch dogs. Though Morwenna is terrified of dogs, the brave sisters throw the magic flower they’ve brought into the black pool and the next day the factory announces its closing. Magic is real, though not the way we imagine it. A post script from the journal’s author says she write this first because “it’s compact and concise and it makes sense, and a lot of the rest of this isn’t that simple.” This statement entices us to read further.
Slowing Time with Daily Details
The story then jumps ahead four years to September 5th 1979 and we learn that Morwenna died in a car accident and a seriously injured Morganna has been sent to live with her estranged father after running away from her insane mother. Using details about the mundane aspects of daily life and numerous references to science fiction and fantasy novels, the remaining scenes unfold slowly with only hints of magic, its unpredictable nature and the dangers of using it for self-interest. Morganna choses to be called Mor, connecting herself to her dead twin, yet in the first part of the story, she distances herself from her father by just calling him “he.” We meet “the aunts”, Anthea, Dorothy and Frederica, who control “him” by having him manage their estate. The aunts “get rid” of Mor by rushing her off to the boarding school, Arlinghurst. Walton sets the contrast between Mor’s life with her mother’s family and life at the aunts’ house, enhancing the distance from her poor side of the family and her father’s rich side. Mor’s only connection to her father is books. They share an interest in science fiction/fantasy which Mor reads with an OCD consumption. Since she is in constant pain from her injured leg and has nothing else to do, we can sympathize with Mor and understand her reading compulsion. However, continuing references to titles and authors slows the pacing and makes it a challenge to continued reading even in the face of the subtle threat of her mother’s magic.
We are almost half-way through the novel before the pacing speeds up with the introduction of Wim, a boy Mor meets at a SciFi/Fantasy book club. Like a lot of things in life, the joy of being in Wim’s presence carries Mor through the daily rituals of boarding school until the next time with meeting him. Wim adds flavor to the plot with his questionable reputation and his curiosity about magic until the final scene where Mor must confront her mother.
In order to improve my own writing, I read “Among Others” because it won the 2011 Nebula Award. Through the first half of the book, I kept asking why it won such a prestigious award when other novels held so much more interest. But after finishing the book, it makes sense, and so does the slow pacing of the first half. My kudos go to Jo Walton for using the technique of slowing time with Mor childhood and then speeding it up as she matures and for winning the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel. If you haven’t read this novel, be as patient as you would with any teenager, knowing the maturity at the end is worth it.
Reviewed by Rhodes FitzWilliam