Among Others: A Novel (Hugo Award Winner - Best Novel) Paperback – January 3, 2012
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“A wonder and a joy. ” ―The New York Times
“Compelling... 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.” ―Publishers Weekly, starred review
“Beautifully crafted... Among Others calls to those who desire a wild, magical world in place of the one they have but eventually learn that their own lives are the greatest story of all.” ―Bloomsbury Review
“There are the books you want to give all your friends, and there are the books you wish you could go back and give your younger self. And then there's the rare book, like Jo W alton's Among Others, that's both.” ―io9.com
“An utterly amazing and beautiful book.” ―RT Book Reviews, Top Pick
About the Author
JO WALTON's novel Tooth and Claw won the World Fantasy Award. The novels of her Small Change sequence―Farthing, Ha'penny, and Half a Crown―have won acclaim ranging from national newspapers to the Romantic Times Reviewer's Choice Award. A native of Wales, Walton lives in Montreal.
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Morwenna grew up in Wales in the 1970's after the coal mines had long since played out. She and her sister spent most of their childhood days roaming the ruins of the long-abandoned factories where the fairies of the forest taught them how to use magic.
The story opens with Morwenna arriving in England at the age of fifteen to live with her father whom she has never met. She has survived a great battle with her mother, who may be mentally ill or may be, as Morwenna believes, an actual witch. The battle left Morwenna crippled but alive; it left her twin sister dead. She compares her life now to the Scouring of the Shire, a time when she must learn how to live after the climax is over.
After hooking readers with this rather intriguing premise, this novel is content to amble leisurely forward, ever so slowly, doling out the full scope of its backstory and magic system one small revelation at a time.
It is an urban fantasy.
It is a coming of age story about a shy, quiet girl more caught up in books than real life.
It is an homage to the great science fiction and fantasy novels of the mid-twentieth century. (Half the fun is trying to catch all the allusions and literary references. I added nearly a dozen new books to my to-read list).
This particular form of magic always makes things happen through naturalistic means, so it can be easily explained or denied. As Morwenna describes it:
"You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic… It's like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn't mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn't because you did the magic."
This brings up interesting questions about causality. If you use magic to cause a rose to be dropped from an airplane, did you change the flight path of the plane? Maybe you caused the person who dropped the rose to be born and/or to take this particular trip on this particular day? If you use magic to find friends, are they really your friends, or are they just puppets you are manipulating?
The parallel between this magic system and belief in prayer is rather ingenious and obvious, which may be why Morwenna inserts a long digression at one point about how she hates reading Narnia as religious allegory.
Natural magic also means it is possible to read most of the book as if Morwenna is not living in a magical world at all; she could be just particularly imaginative and paranoid. As one character broadly hints, this type of reading would be analogous to Stephen Donaldson's Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever series, in which the title character wanders through a wonderful fantasy world believing himself to be stark raving mad.
This book is beautiful at times, and certainly well-written, but be warned it is slow paced. I kept thinking the final hundred pages would be filled with a burst of expository explanation and some climactic confrontation, but … no. It is not that kind of book. The author does wrap up all the plots and answer all the questions, including whether the magic is real, but she does so in a plodding, intentionally anticlimactic fashion.
Recommended, but it is probably not for everyone.
The story takes place in contemporary UK. The protagonist is a fifteen year old schoolgirl from Wales who sometimes "sees fairies" and has a nodding acquaintance with, but decidedly mixed feelings about, magic. She's bright and, perhaps somewhat unrealistically sensible & kind, though not so much as to be off-putting. And the author does at least acknowledge and provide justification for the character's traits.
Due to a near-fatal automobile accident, the main character limps badly and is in constant pain. She needs a cane to get around, has a hard time getting out of chairs, etc. She's not particularly pretty, but she's not homely either. Also, she's in a ritzy boarding school, and many of the other girls pinch her, try to trip her, call her things like "hop-a-long," you know the drill: she's an outsider. At the same time, she's one of the top students in the school and she wins awards for her "house" (is that the right word?) so she's also respected. Oh, and she loves reading -- especially science fiction, so there's a lot of discussion *about* Sci Fi and, to a lesser extent, Fantasy.
The story takes place in the months after the first anniversary of her accident. There are some weird family members, some quirky and fun; others quirky and not so fun; a few just plain mean. Really, it seems to be the story, told in an odd (but also, to me, oddly appealing) way of this girl coping w/ her physical situation and moving on with her life. Her love of SF turns out to be a good path for her.
Apart from the bits about magic and fairies, which sometimes seemed almost incidental, this could be be a work of general fiction rather than fantasy. By that I mean the supernatural aspects usually take a back seat to "real life." In fact, I spent much of the book trying to decide whether or not she was sane and/or whether she had a grasp of reality. If that was the intent, then Walton handled that aspect of the story very well.
At any rate, I found the novel to be engaging and well worth my time. And due to all the discussion of science fiction and fantasy books in the story, I ended up with a good list of new things to explore. As always, your mileage may vary.
Top international reviews
Told through diary entries, we follow Mori as she tries to live without her twin, is moved to a posh boarding school by her estranged father and struggles with her relationship with magic. The major issue is that Mori is obsessed with books and the author constantly (and i do mean constantly) 'name drops' authors and books. Its beyond tedious and really just comes across as the author trying to let people know how well read she is. Plus, if the reader hasn't read a certain book then Mori's reference to a certain character and how she is or is not like them is totally lost on the reader. That happened to me afew times and it was deeply frustrating.
Then there's the magic elements. On the one hand i applaud the fact the author has tried to approach magic another way, its all very subtle and Mori herself struggles to describe what magic is and has her doubts if her magic has even worked. That said, there are times when it just comes off as meaningless gibberish. Some of the diary entries seem like philosophical musings, is a 15 year old girl really writing this? And even if she is, its pretty boring.
Its a shame that what was a decent idea is hindered in the telling. For readers expecting a fantasy book it probably wont have enough fantasy elements. Ultimately, it seems that this book was written so the author could go on about Wales and list the books she's read, the result of which is that interesting aspects of the story are pushed onto the back burner.
Morwenna has run away from her insane and dangerous mother in the Welsh valleys and been returned to her long absent father and his reserved English sisters in Shropshire, where she is promptly dispatched to boarding school.
Mor's diary recounts both her new life and the past which brought her here, telling the story of how she and her sister Morganna, killed in an accident that left Mor badly injured, and the fairies that the sisters have grown up seeing, fought the evil that her mother tried to perpetrate. She also tells of her love of science fiction, her inability to fit in, and her feelings for a boy named Wim whom she meets at the library on a rare visit away from the school.
But Mor's battle against evil isn't over, and her dealings with the fairies not yet done.
I really enjoyed the book, the writing was good but a little strange and jarring in places. Not sure if that was the author herself faltering slightly or a device she used for Mor's diary. I felt a lot was unexplained. We don't really know what Mor's mother did, or how she did it, what Mor herself was capable of or what really was happening right at the end. We don't know if every word Mor writes is true or if she is as deranged as her mother, Liz, is portrayed to be. We don't know what she sees when she sees the fairies, if they are real or if she is a lonely, damaged girl clutching at childhood fantasies to comfort herself and help her cope with tragedy and change. We can choose to believe or to wonder. But whatever you believe by the end of the book, Mor is a great character, interesting, ahead of her time, ahead of her peers, and her passion for her books and desire to learn is lovely and inspiring.
I really didn't want this book to end and would love to know more. There's plenty left to find out, about the other characters who were also interesting (Sam, Daniel, the aunts, Auntie Teg) and plenty to find out about what Liz did and how she did it, why she did it, what she thought she would achieve and what she might do next.
The descriptions of Wales and the valleys were fascinating and the sense of time and place was excellent.
It starts well - the first-person journal of 15-year-old Mori, who has lost her twin sister in an accident caused by her black magic mother in an incident involving fairies and an explosion. The details aren't entirely clear, but we catch up as Mori moves away from the maternal side of her family to meet her father Daniel (who left when she was a baby) for the first time and attend a private girls school in Oswestry in 1979. Mori has a passion for reading, especially SF, and we watch as she ingratiates herself into an SF book club which meets weekly. Her father also reads avidly and there are many, many mentions of SF books - Zelazny, Heinlein, Le Guin, Silverberg and many other authors are referenced in mostly glowing terms.
There are some wonderful tributes to authors, books and libraries. I loved libraries when I was young and I think the author did as well. "Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilisation" enthuses Mori, breathlessly, but I can't help but agree with her.
But there are some problems for me with this book. Firstly there is less a plot, than a series of opportunities to mention books. And the interesting part of the back story (witch mother, dead twin) is never explored in any detail and we are left to guess most of it. The fairies themselves are actually quite well done, being difficult to both see and converse with. But there is a lack of direction and climax and lots of muddled characters (all the extended family members seem to blur into one, no matter what side of the family they hail from). Astonishly what appears to be an attempted sexual assualt is casually dismissed by Mori and never mentioned again.
I did enjoy the commentary on books and the fact that she realises that the Number of the Beast is not classic Heinlein (it was this book that put me off him for the first time) and has to be told about his right wing tendencies (I didn't get that at her age). And I like most of the authors she likes, so I did like thinking "yes, I read that and I liked it too" whenever she mentioned a book I liked.
I didn't read any of the Hugo and Nebula award finalists that this book managed to beat, but I have to say that Among Others can't hold a candle to the masterpieces of yesteryear - Le Guin's The Left Hand Of Darkness and The Dispossessed (both referenced within this book in glowing terms) tower above it.
I did see one review mention that this was a YA offering and I can see that might be the case, but it was not mentioned in the publicity or book description and I might have approached with less expectation if I had know this.
Ultimately I think there was a missed opportunity here for a clever book about how out imaginations can lead us astray and towards the end I thought the author was about to take that step, but she shied away from it and I was disappointed.
3 stars for all the memories and something fairly well imagined and constructed, but no more I'm sad to say.
At the heart of it, lurking in her subconscious, is the demise of her twin, rendered unspeakable and referred to indirectly, and her connection to the fairy folk, mentioned in a non-magical way, which makes the extraordinary ordinary, and perhaps more believable for the lack of fuss with which it is dealt with. Along the way, we learn that her mother is a witch, when a schoolmate asks her about her photos which her mother has burnt the part with her sister away. We know not whether to believe her because prior to this she lets on that her mother may have found her through the things she owns, as if through magic.
What anchors the novel in reality is ironically, the narrator's escape into science fiction novels. Morwenna is an avid reader and it is clear that Walton too, is a huge SF fan and many of the books referred to are discussed in some detail, like mini book reviews in their own right. Real authors and real novels that deal with future worlds and alternative realities are strangely juxtaposed against Morwenna's own fantastical (but nonetheless) real world. While this works well, there is a sense of the story lacking a centre and the plot with her sister and mother is constantly deferred in favour of discussion about these SF novels.
The writing is inconsistent, with sentences that sound clumsy, and some editing problems where an extra preposition or two interrupts the flow of writing. Quite a surprise for a novel that is so highly regarded. Overall, it was a patchy though interesting work.
It's fair to say that not much happens in the novel and it's mostly about what Mori thinks; however, I think it's unfair to say that as a criticism. While I was uncertain about where things were going at times I never once felt that I was unwilling to keep on going. I don't want to say that the end came out of nowhere, but I did notice that I was at the 90% mark with some surprise. I would have happily continued reading, but I didn't need to in order to feel that the novel had come to a satisfactory end. There is a climax, of course. But it could have been delayed and I would have been happy. As the novel comes from Mori's perspective, the other characters can seem a little flat at times, but this flatness is the understanding of the narrator, her inability to comprehend motives and impulses. It comes across as a real snapshot from a real person's life, which may be because it is in some way autobiographical, even if it is entirely unclear how far this extends.
If I were forced to be critical, I'd note that there are some unfortunate representations in the categories of gender and sexuality. But there are similar comments about disability, despite the disabled protagonist. The book is set in the seventies, and has the air of a memoire as much as a novel - what it describes is lived experience, not a manual for socially responsible behaviour. It's lived experience with fairies, but still reads authentically. As a genuine criticism, the subplot with Wim deserves some attention. <spoiler>Wim is the beautiful young man Mori meets at her SF book club, whom she discovers may have got a girl pregnant and then abandoned her. There are some complexities to the story, but ultimately she concludes that Wim deserves the benefit of the doubt, and that the girl in question was as or more responsible for the pregnancy scare than he was. The book is set in the late seventies. I cannot expect the protagonist to be flawless. But it sits uncomfortably that a young woman is being presented as a liar, or at least more responsible for birth control than her sexual partner, and that everyone believed her that the partner is question was a terrible man, which is not the usual narrative. Writing this on 19/11/2014, I can report that in today's news a CNN reporter tried to tell a woman how she could have avoided being raped, but as far as I am aware did not tell the accused rapist how he could have avoided committing rape. The events in the novel are not that bad. But I can't feel comfortable with the disproportionate and unrepresentative discussion of this issue which the novel presents</spoiler>.
For most people who can really empathize with Mori, and I suspect particularly those who are a similar age, this book deserves a five star review. However, differing on <i>The Lord of the Rings</i> (although feeling largely similar about <i>[book:The Inverted World|142181]</i>), being a materialist atheist who largely won't process the magical, and not having read much SF when I was quite that young, I can only give it four stars for being an enjoyable read with someone I think I would like to have around.
Which makes it sound more about that than it is. If it's about anything it's about books and stories and how they make you see the world a certain way. It's also about how that can be a refuge. I think the book makes a case for it not being a withdrawal as Mor, as we come to know her, is always really trying "to live" and it's not that she abandons `real life' in favour of books, it's that she has expectations of what life should be that come from books and these expectations cause her to reject certain things about `real life' - things she sees as trivial perhaps.
The book is told from her point of view, in fact it comprises her diary for a period from the autumn of 1979 to the end of Feb 1980. This places some of the books she references very specifically in their time.Which is also the right time for when I was growing up and discovering books and SciFi books in particular.
A big question that arose for me was whether or not the magic was real. Did she really see fairies or did she merely think she did? Was her mother really a dangerous witch or simply someone with mental health issues? I don't think it's a spoiler to say that the book never steps outside of the point of view of Mor, so that question if it arises for you - and it may not - is left open to interpretation.
I enjoyed this book. It's very good on her everyday life. She's been shipped off to an English boarding school and is having trouble fitting in - because she's Welsh, because she reads, because she neither cares about nor can participate in sport. So the sense of a lonely outsider is well drawn. I did feel that she was somewhat `spiky'. I felt I ought to have liked her more, on paper she had a lot of stuff going for her - a tragic back-story, being the outsider, being picked on, being bookish and smart. But I never quite got over the slight sense that she felt herself better than all these other girls who weren't into books and SciFi.
Also I found the constant book references slightly irritating only because it was assumed I'd get them without explanation. Most were clear from context but some I had to let pass.
As I said though, I did enjoy it. And if you ever felt yourself out of step with others because of a love of books, and especially SciFi/Fantasy then this might well be the book for you.
Walton plays with and mixes genres here and it didn't work for me. On one hand the novel was reminiscent of the adolescent coming-of-age Judy Blume novels which teens used to read back in my day (maybe they still do?) - on the other, it felt like a long diarised reading-list of SF novels with characters pontificating about their contents at every given opportunity. I suppose this can partly be forgiven seeing as she's describing a book-club - and if you can't pontificate about books there then where can you? But there were several occasions where the reader's absence of knowledge of a given text did prevent complete understanding of what was going on.
The cynical part of me also wonders whether one of the reasons this book scooped the awards was because it serves so elegantly (and successfully - I have already ordered some of the novels Walton mentions!) as a marketing vessel for the genre...
On the positive side, I really enjoyed Walton's take on the world of magic and fairies. I liked the way she made it subtle, intangible and unpredictable. I was therefore really disappointed by the finale where the heroine and her nemesis have it out Hogwarts style! Why go to such lengths to create a world with such refined and beautiful concepts and then destroy it at the wave of a wand?
There is also brief mention of a very disturbing encounter between the heroine and her father. It is brushed off and never mentioned again but leaves an uncomfortable after-taste and seems an odd thing to slip in, almost casually, without bothering to develop further.
In summary - I think this book is just okay ... But, genre-wise, it is a bit of an oddity and I don't think it comes anywhere close to the caliber of many of the previous winners of the Hugo-Nebula awards so if you are here for the SF I suggest you look elsewhere for your next read.
Mor, the heroine, has had a difficult life but books are her salvation . . . I am not going to spoil your enjoyment any further than say this book may get you searching the shelves of second hand book shops for SF you have missed, forgotten about or never knew existed. The characters are beautifully drawn, ranging from the dark and brooding to the sad and funny. There is magic in these pages but it may not be like any magic you have come across before. It is difficult, dangerous and has a cost you may not want to pay.
There is love and friendship between these pages along with tears and sorrow. Phew.
I think a part of it is that I am the right age and I also read a lot of library SF as a teenager. I've consequently read many of the books mentioned - a bit like with 'Ready Player One' I think this adds an extra dimension to the enjoyment of the book as a reader - and those I haven't read I've taken as recommendations, even ordered the ones most raved about from Amazon. However, even without this I think it would be at least a solid four stars unless your SF has to have spaceships or aliens, in which case, avoid!
Overall, it was an enjoyable read. As a result, my knowledge of science fiction authors and novels has also quadrupled. You'll know what I mean if you read it.