27 September 2017

Book Review: Among Others

Title: Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Published in 2011 by Tor Books

Source: Malmö city library 


Startling, unusual, and yet irresistibly readable, Among Others is at once the compelling story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood, a brilliant diary of first encounters with the great novels of modern fantasy and SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.

Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled--and her twin sister dead.

Fleeing to her father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England–a place all but devoid of true magic. There, outcast and alone, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off…

Combining elements of autobiography with flights of imagination in the manner of novels like Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, this is potentially a breakout book for an author whose genius has already been hailed by peers like Kelly Link, Sarah Weinman, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
 


Mori is a fifteen-year-old girl who, together with her twin sister talks to fairies, and practices magic. When her sister is killed in an accident caused by her insane mother, Mori runs away, and moves in with her estranged father, who immediately ships her off to a boarding school. There, she becomes ostracized, and spends most of her free time in the school library reading sci fi, and writing in her journal. 

By reading her journal, we get to dive deep into this traumatized but resilient girl's mind, and watch her deal with depression, loneliness, and the threat of dark magic.  

Among Others is a fantasy that falls into the magical realism territory. The magic element is present and it's strong but it's secondary to the story and the character development. There's also an element of uncertainty, as for the most part you don't know if the magic is real or if Mori is making it all up as a coping strategy to deal with her grief, and social isolation. This uncertainty is frustrating at times, but it's also clever because you can see it either way. Magic doesn't play a big part in the story itself but it plays an important part in Mori's life, and it keeps affecting her actions. 

The thing with Among Others is that there isn't any plot per se. What this book does have is a story. It's a story of a young girl who is trying to deal with her loss, overcome her crippling injury, and survive in the merciless jungle that is an all-girls boarding school.  

Because we get to read Mori's own journal we get to follow her whole process from her darkest place to a place where she finally starts feeling hopeful about the future. She has a fantastic arc from beginning to the end, and this development is reflected in her writing. The first third or so of her journal is kind of messy and confusing, but her writing gets clearer and more defined towards the end. 

This is a very smart and nuanced coming-of-age story, and Mori is a very relatable character. I may not be a witch or have a twin sister, but I too once went to a school where nobody would speak to me, and the social stress she's experiencing is something that all of us can relate to. Plus, I too love sci fi. 

Speaking of which, there is a lot of sci fi in this story. Mori loves sci fi literature. At first, sci fi is her refuge from the world, but later, it becomes a way for her to connect with other people. I love that but I don't know if you can fully enjoy this book if you're not a fan of sci fi. While reading it, I had a feeling that his book was written for sci fi fans as the target audience. And I was not wrong, as Walton herself calls this book a "love letter to science fiction fandom".

I have to say, it's nice having a whole book dedicated to a fandom that you are a part of. But it was a lucky coincidence that I had finished Cat's Cradle right before starting this book, because Cat's Cradle plays a big part in Mori's journey. Specifically, the concept of karass.  

In Cat's Cradle, a karass is a group of people with whom you share a special bond, even if it seems like you don't have anything in common with them. And throughout most of the story, Mori is searching for her own karass

Among Others reminds me of another book that I reviewed a couple of years ago. Rarity from the Hollow by Robert Eggleton is a science fiction story about Lacy Dawn, a girl who is dealing with an abusive father, and a neglectful mother in a poverty-stricken town. And where Mori has her magic and fairies to help her cope with the harsh reality, Lacy Dawn has her magical forest and her alien boyfriend. Both girls are told by their otherworldly friends that they serve a higher purpose in the world, and both girls must eventually find an inner strength to overcome adversity, with or without magic. There is this element of uncertainty is both stories, but where in RFTH the aliens and magic turn out to be real, when it comes to Among Others, I'm still not sure.

Another thing that the two books have in common is the issue of incest and sexual abuse. But where RFTH does a good job really dealing with this issue, Among Others has one weird scene that comes out of nowhere. Nothing happens (that much needs to be said), but this "incident" isn't even acknowledged or mentioned anywhere else in the book. I don't understand the purpose of this scene. 

This one weird and confusing detail aside, I really like Among Others


I like the idea of magic and science fiction serving as a coping mechanism for a protagonist, especially a younger protagonist. Among Others does it very well. It's a smart and touching story that does a good job balancing fantasy with realism. Oh, and sci fi is the best genre ever, and anyone who disagrees with me just hasn't found a sci fi book that's right for them. 


My rating
Plot: 3 stars
Story: 5 stars
Characters: 4 stars
Language: 4 stars 

Average: 4 stars 


Ps. Check out this article from The Guardian, where Walton talks about Among Others winning the British Fantasy Award in 2012. 


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