Among Others by Jo Walton

Jo Walton’s Among Others, set in late 1970s Wales, is the story of Morwenna (Mori for short), a fourteen year-old girl with the ability to see fairies and perform magic. She recently lost her twin sister in a fight they were both involved in to save themselves, and possibly the world, from their insane mother. Having run away from home after this, she eventually finds her way to her biological father’s house, where he, along with his three sisters, sends her away to boarding school for reasons that she doesn’t quite understand.

While there, she does her best to cope with day-to-day life, finding solace in science-fiction books but still feeling pangs of loneliness. In her desperation she does a bit of magic, creating a karass to bring her friends. It’s successful and she finds some of happiness in the local science-fiction book club and with another few outcasts at her school. Despite this, however, she’s not able to completely push aside the troubling thoughts of her past and the consequences it may have on her future.

A magic system that makes you think
In Among Others, the concept of magic is approached in an innovative way not seen before. When magic is performed, it doesn’t mean that something is created out of nothing as seen in most novels. Magic is a means to alter the past in a way that suits your wishes. For example, had Mori never performed the magic to give herself friends, the book club might never have existed. The people who work at the library might not have existed to create the book club. The people she befriends at school might never have been born. Essentially, because Mori did that bit of magic, there’s the possibility that she created all of those things herself to suit her needs.

This is an obviously an incredibly deep way of thinking, and it takes you awhile to wrap your head around what it means and all of the possibilities and consequences that sprout from it. Mori has to constantly worry about whether or not her seemingly meaningless actions are the product of someone else’s magic in the future, or whether or not her very existence is the product of someone else’s magic. It is truly a daunting thought, and one that I’ll be pondering for quite some time.

A unique style of writing
This story is told through Mori’s diary entries, and it does seem like the diary of a fourteen-year-old girl, even though she has the ability to see fairies and do magic. Mori has to deal with things that every fourteen-year-old has to deal with, and I’m glad that the fantasy aspects of the novel didn’t detract from that. There were quite a few moments when I felt bogged down with information—a few pages of family ancestry that play no real part in the novel come to mind—and it was difficult for me to bring myself to keep reading at times, but in the end I’m glad that I did, because this is a very rewarding read.

Jo Walton has an ability to completely capture your mind and entrench you in her novels. There’s a whimsical melancholy in Among Others that fully engrossed me in the novel and, at the same time, made me want to set it aside so I could think about the concepts that it shows me with every page. I have never encountered a novel like this.

A stale start
Early in the novel, before I adapted to the unique writing style, I found myself bored. Mori is at school—and that’s basically all that happens. She has day-to-day problems that every fourteen year-old girl has in school, as I mentioned earlier, and sometimes that’s just not very interesting to read about—even if she does have some supernatural tendencies. I’m sure that upon a re-read I won’t even notice these things since I’ll be fully engrossed and used to the writing style, but upon my first read it was difficult to adapt to.

A lot of SF/F references
There are hundreds of science-fiction and fantasy novels referenced in this novel as Mori reads them, and there is absolutely no way that you could have possibly read all of them unless you’re the most hardcore of speculative fiction readers. This didn’t necessarily detract from the novel, because Mori talked more about what the books meant to her than what the books are actually about, but sometimes I felt a little lost, having read only a few of the titles mentioned. It’s not necessarily a fault, but it’s something for me to mention.

Why should you read this book?
Not only is Among Others one of the most deep and thoughtful novels I’ve ever read, it was crafted in such a beautiful way that I will be thinking about it for a very long time. There are going to be so many re-reads of this book that I will probably have to buy another copy, simply because it makes me think. This is really one of the most provocative novels of our time, and there is absolutely no reason why you shouldn’t read it.

About James Starke

James Starke
James is 21 years old and has been described as many things in life – pop music lover, book nerd, movie geek, cookie nommer, bookshelf filler, tortured writer, tech dork, television watcher, webcomic addict, fierce supermodel, crazy cat lady, musical fanatic, a loyal Hufflepuff, GLEEk to the Nth degree, pizza eater, future librarian, a horrible procrastinator, Poké-freak, eyeglass wearer, a lover of the arts, and a zombie unicorn that sparkles in the night (well, actually that might’ve just been once). He prefers to describe himself as “a man of odd enthusiasms.”

View all articles written by James Starke.

15 comments

  1. I’m interested in reading this, but I was wondering if it contains spoilers for the SF/F books it mentions.

  2. I’m interested in reading this, but I was wondering if it contains spoilers for the SF/F books it mentions.

  3. Afraid I feel the need to rant a bit. To say up front I value and respect the views of people that liked it, and don’t grudge anyone pleasure they found in this or other books. Unfortunately I have some criticisms for it, and given what this book is about will involved some comments on use and misuse of fandom appeal. I hope I don’t give offense, and will say that a lot of the comments in the book on the power of SF literature–particularly on Delany and Le Guin–I agree with whole-heartedly.

    Those comments aren’t enough a story, though. In short that’s the issue I take with it–that the book is the end barely a novel. Particularly in how weak it is in plot and characterization. Instead what it’s involved with is a truly over the top focus on self-referential SF elements, a long listing of reviews and reactions to different speculative fiction texts. What in the end is the point, beyond contributing to the strain of SF that’s more and more insular and self-contained? That believes simply having a set of particular tastes makes a story compelling? I’m probably a bit hampered in this by coming to the book after Walton’s posts on tor.com, but that also makes it very explicit that these are real-world tastes of the author explored at length through an awkwardly framed story. The elements of darkness and psychological function hinted at early in the story, with a recognition of how bad it would be to actually relate to the whole world only through a scifi lens, don’t catalyst effectively. There’s nothing really here beyond the not-at-all-subtext that SF is awesome. There are books about science fiction as SF that I find fascinating–Yellow Blue Tibia comes to mind. But that work has something to say, it uses the idea of a meta-narrative to challenge and explore unfamiliar terrain. Among Others is about a meta-narrative as consolation, as a statement of absolute value applied to personal life experiences and the experience of being a fan. The ultimate message is simply: Yay! It’s a narcissistic, minimally plotted celebration of a niche mindset as being the essence of humanity. 

    Ultimately I found the book self-indulgent to an immense fault, and thoroughly lacking in substance. For the gain it offers, I’d suggest just reading Walton’s posts on tor–they’re generally intersting, amusing and fun. That applied to a novel makes for a very weak experience, in my own humble opinion. Similar issues as with a lot of Stross, Scalzi, Butcher and Doctrow–rather than extrapolating or exploring alternatives to the present some authors are content to write only to and of fandom. And many of these works become very popular in the SFnal community, since isn’t it nice to be complimented? I find that rather disheartening. 

    This is probably the strongest negative reaction I’ve had to a book since Feed. Similarly I see this book and the enthusiastic reaction as incredibly depressing. At a positive this book at least doesn’t have a plethora of spelling errors, and Walton is at least capable of subtlety. On the other hand at least Feed was about something–heavy handed strawman politics and zombie enthusiasm. Not laudable goals and it executed them very poorly, but it did at least gesture in the idea of after-effects for Romero’s portrayal and a dystopian critique. Among Others doesn’t look to anything outside its own little fandom world. There are good things about growing up on SF, on interacting with others around common enthusiasm. Obviously. But that is not and should not be taken as a suitable end it itself, to be as idealized and automatically laudatory as Walton’s book asserts.

  4. Afraid I feel the need to rant a bit. To say up front I value and respect the views of people that liked it, and don’t grudge anyone pleasure they found in this or other books. Unfortunately I have some criticisms for it, and given what this book is about will involved some comments on use and misuse of fandom appeal. I hope I don’t give offense, and will say that a lot of the comments in the book on the power of SF literature–particularly on Delany and Le Guin–I agree with whole-heartedly.

    Those comments aren’t enough a story, though. In short that’s the issue I take with it–that the book is the end barely a novel. Particularly in how weak it is in plot and characterization. Instead what it’s involved with is a truly over the top focus on self-referential SF elements, a long listing of reviews and reactions to different speculative fiction texts. What in the end is the point, beyond contributing to the strain of SF that’s more and more insular and self-contained? That believes simply having a set of particular tastes makes a story compelling? I’m probably a bit hampered in this by coming to the book after Walton’s posts on tor.com, but that also makes it very explicit that these are real-world tastes of the author explored at length through an awkwardly framed story. The elements of darkness and psychological function hinted at early in the story, with a recognition of how bad it would be to actually relate to the whole world only through a scifi lens, don’t catalyst effectively. There’s nothing really here beyond the not-at-all-subtext that SF is awesome. There are books about science fiction as SF that I find fascinating–Yellow Blue Tibia comes to mind. But that work has something to say, it uses the idea of a meta-narrative to challenge and explore unfamiliar terrain. Among Others is about a meta-narrative as consolation, as a statement of absolute value applied to personal life experiences and the experience of being a fan. The ultimate message is simply: Yay! It’s a narcissistic, minimally plotted celebration of a niche mindset as being the essence of humanity. 

    Ultimately I found the book self-indulgent to an immense fault, and thoroughly lacking in substance. For the gain it offers, I’d suggest just reading Walton’s posts on tor–they’re generally intersting, amusing and fun. That applied to a novel makes for a very weak experience, in my own humble opinion. Similar issues as with a lot of Stross, Scalzi, Butcher and Doctrow–rather than extrapolating or exploring alternatives to the present some authors are content to write only to and of fandom. And many of these works become very popular in the SFnal community, since isn’t it nice to be complimented? I find that rather disheartening. 

    This is probably the strongest negative reaction I’ve had to a book since Feed. Similarly I see this book and the enthusiastic reaction as incredibly depressing. At a positive this book at least doesn’t have a plethora of spelling errors, and Walton is at least capable of subtlety. On the other hand at least Feed was about something–heavy handed strawman politics and zombie enthusiasm. Not laudable goals and it executed them very poorly, but it did at least gesture in the idea of after-effects for Romero’s portrayal and a dystopian critique. Among Others doesn’t look to anything outside its own little fandom world. There are good things about growing up on SF, on interacting with others around common enthusiasm. Obviously. But that is not and should not be taken as a suitable end it itself, to be as idealized and automatically laudatory as Walton’s book asserts.

  5. Wow, that is pretty negative. I could almost agree with the general tendency of part of it — the book is more about SF itself and reactions to it than it is “about” the plot of the book. I would totally disagree that it’s weak in characterization, though — I got an excellent picture of who the characters are. Even the plot was not so much weak as just not the central focus of the book.
    I think Among Others is definitely about something, and while what it’s about might not be world-shattering, I’d say that it’s something that is more directly relevant to a lot of people’s lives. And it was captured excellently. I didn’t see it as heavy-handed at all.

  6. Wow, that is pretty negative. I could almost agree with the general
    tendency of part of it — the book is more about SF itself and reactions
    to it than it is “about” the plot of the book. I would totally disagree
    that it’s weak in characterization, though — I got an excellent
    picture of who the characters are. Even the plot was not so much weak as
    just not the central focus of the book.

    I think Among Others is definitely about something,
    and while what it’s about might not be world-shattering, I’d say that
    it’s something that is more directly relevant to a lot of people’s
    lives. And it was captured excellently. I didn’t see it as heavy-handed
    at all.

  7. Wow, that is pretty negative. I could almost agree with the general tendency of part of it — the book is more about SF itself and reactions to it than it is “about” the plot of the book. I would totally disagree that it’s weak in characterization, though — I got an excellent picture of who the characters are. Even the plot was not so much weak as just not the central focus of the book.
    I think Among Others is definitely about something, and while what it’s about might not be world-shattering, I’d say that it’s something that is more directly relevant to a lot of people’s lives. And it was captured excellently. I didn’t see it as heavy-handed at all.

  8. Wow, that is pretty negative. I could almost agree with the general
    tendency of part of it — the book is more about SF itself and reactions
    to it than it is “about” the plot of the book. I would totally disagree
    that it’s weak in characterization, though — I got an excellent
    picture of who the characters are. Even the plot was not so much weak as
    just not the central focus of the book.

    I think Among Others is definitely about something,
    and while what it’s about might not be world-shattering, I’d say that
    it’s something that is more directly relevant to a lot of people’s
    lives. And it was captured excellently. I didn’t see it as heavy-handed
    at all.

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