Jan 20 2011 9:34am

Is it magic or is it mimetic? (Being a review of Jo Walton’s Among Others)

Among Others by Jo WaltonThere are a lot of coming-of-age stories in fantasy. They're a staple of the genre; some might go so far as to say a cliché. But Among Others (excerpt available here) is far from your father's fantasy Bildungsroman, and not just because it transfers the story of a girl growing up to more-or-less modern-day Wales.

In fact, it's not really a Bildungsroman at all. Nor, despite featuring a sixteen-year-old heroine, is it a coming-of-age story. Because as the story starts, our heroine has already come of age. This is a book that concerns itself far more with surviving trauma and finding a place in the world than with finding one's self.  Morwenna Phelps has already faced her worst monster, emerging scarred for life, with an indeterminate victory that cost the life of her twin sister.

That monster is her mother, a woman who dabbled in black magic and felt perfectly justified in bending anyone she chose to her will. As we join Mor, she has been taken in by her estranged father and his three controlling sisters, and she is about to be packed off to boarding school in England. (She has grown up in Wales, which reminds me of a children's book I loved when I was little.)

We quickly learn that when Mor ran away from her mother, she brought very little with her except a satchel full of books. Books are her most precious treasure, and she has been delighted to learn that her father, too, is a reader. It's something she has in common with this man she knows almost nothing about.

Those books will remain her chief retreat at school, where she stands out because of her lame leg, her intellect, and her nationality—with predictable results for a girl surrounded by other teenaged girls. It's a story of alienation that many geeks can identify with. Walton doesn't pull her punches, finding a level of emotional honesty that rings with truth.

Mor is oblivious to the outside world in a way I found very convincing for a teenager. She is not a TV watcher, and it seems nobody in her family is. She is largely apolitical. All she cares about is the worlds that books can take her to. They are her armor and her comfort.

Through Mor, we experience the wonders of one of the great ages of speculative fiction afresh, as she reads Heinlein and Le Guin, Zelazny and Cooper, and interacts with them not as a critic pursuing an agenda but as a bright, engaged reader awakening to the possibilities of literature and the world.  Meanwhile, Mor's mother—defeated but not destroyed—begins attempting to contact her. And Mor starts to wonder if there isn't somebody else in the world who is bookish and odd like her and her father, and sets out to find them.

The magic in Among Others is of the subtle variety, the sort that can easily be dismissed by observers as confabulation and magical thinking. And indeed, there's very little in the book to contradict the possibility that it is just the imaginings of a traumatized girl seeking power. There are fairies, but most people can't see them. There is spellcasting, but its results present themselves as coincidence. There is dark hunting magic, but it comes in the form of letters with burned-out photos within.

The voice is sublime; the characters nuanced. It reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones's Charmed Life in the matter-of-factness with which its protagonist deals with an uncompromisingly difficult world. This is natural, of course—both books arise out of the same British tradition of boarding-school books that spawned Harry Potter. Which is not to say that this book is in any way derivative of Rowling's work, or Jones's—rather that all three grow from the same root. It also in some ways reminds me of Pamela Dean's legendary novel Tam Lin.

In any case, I think this is Walton's best book to date.

Elizabeth Bear is the two-time Hugo-winning author of Grail, The Sea thy Mistress, and a bunch of other things.

Lisa Parkin
1. LParkin
Wow- this sounds great! The magic seems subtle and the characters real. It seems like Mor is a very relatable character. Although I wouldn't normally pick up this type of book, I'm definitely intrigued!

Great review!
C Smith
2. C12VT
I bought it yesterday and just finished it.

It's absolutely amazing.
3. Kvon
It's an odd book in that it should appeal to sf lovers and fantasy lovers, in different parts of the narrative. Bear describes it better than I could. The character of Mori was great.
4. Lee Edward McIlmoyle
Sounds like a lovely book.
Brent Longstaff
5. Brentus
Since this book is about someone reading some classic speculative fiction books, does it contain spoilers for those books? Should people make sure they have read those other books first?
Steven Halter
6. stevenhalter
brentus@5: I don't think it has much in the way of spoiler details. Mori tells her opinion of books she has read or finished as the story progresses. The story isn't about someone reading books. The story is about Mori and the events around her. Mori likes books and so her thoughts on them are a part of the story.
I liked it, by the way.
Kaela smelser
7. Kwhopper88
I was really floored by how well she addressed a couple things:
First, the magic and fairies. I usually shy away from anything really to do with fairies, elves, the odd fantasy races. I don't know why, I just feel they ruin most fantasy they're involved in, which is maybe why I was in the 'plausibly deniable' boat with the books magical parts. Unfortuantely, I'm not firmly in that boat anymore- Jo totally rocked my world with one part in particular, and now I'm completely torn over whether or not the damn things are real. For how frustrating that is, it's also fantastic!
Second: Identity. Mori's identity as a person and a character is beyond believable- it comes as perfectly natural. The way she speaks, the way she acts, the way she writes... I could go on, but seriously she's just real and identifiable as a character.
For that matter, the way she relates others' identities to her is perfect. Her father is just Daniel. He kind of but doesn't really look like her, she only really acknowledges that he's her father so that she has one... I don't know, but after you've read it, you may understand where I'm coming from with all of this.
There is the occasional spoiler for other books, but more in a technical way that I noticed than in a literal way (ie. she goes on a bit of a tangent when she realizes C.S. Lewis based Aslan on Jesus)
And good freaking luck trying to read all of the books mentioned in the novel to keep down the minor spoiler danger. There's a lot of them...

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