Mon
Jul 2 2012 5:00pm
Is it Magic or is it Mimetic? (Being a Review of Jo Walton’s Among Others

This week we’re looking at the novels nominated for this year’s upcoming Hugo Awards. Today we look at this year’s Nebula Award winner for Best Novel, 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.

12 comments
Mordicai Knode
1. mordicai
I was legitimately moved by this book, which is not something I can often say. I don't know, an alienated childhood punctuated by personal mythopoeia & science-fiction & fantasy novels? Yeah, that is...yes. This is a dangerous book, in the best way, & I'm rooting for it.
Jenny Kristine
2. jennygadget
yay! I loved this book.

"The magic in Among Others is of the subtle variety, the sort that can easily be dismissed by observers as confabulation and magical thinking"

This was one of my favorite bits: how the magic was handled, that you had to choose to decide to believe, that the story still works in many ways even if you don't - and the fact that Walton managed it all so deftly.

It actually reminds me of what Larbelestier did in Liar - although that may perhaps be in part because I read them so close together. :)
Steven Halter
3. stevenhalter
It really is a lovely book. It fully deserves the praise it is getting. In many ways, I had very little in common with Mor, but in many ways I had very much in common. Books can indeed be a shareed gateway.
I never had any doubt that the magic was real. I was actually fairly startled the first time someone suggested it--although in retrospect I could see how it could be read that way if you squinted in just the right/wrong fashion.
Excellent book.
David Goldfarb
4. David_Goldfarb
Towards the end, when Wim becomes able to see the fairies while he holds the cane they gave her, that to me definitively tips the scales towards, "It's all real".
Rob Munnelly
5. RobMRobM
Enjoyable book. I've been recommending it to librarians, who particularly appreciate it (for obvious reasons as they are in many respects the heroes/heroines of the story).
Benjamin Klein
6. benjaminsa
I loved this book, especially the way she took on magic. The book just sucks you in, and leaves open many interpretations. I found the ending a little sudden and slightly strange.
Cat Hellisen
7. Cat Hellisen
Okay, wow, this sounds like just my thing. Adding this to the *to buy* list.
Rich Bennett
8. Neuralnet
I wasnt quite as enamored with it as the rest of you. I think it is because I am an american male so english boarding school for girls was a hard read at some points. I was sure the fairies were a dillusion until she received the walking stick... then I found myself wanting more of them. I wish the ending had been a bit longer/bigger. Plus, there was just a little too much name dropping re: list every sci/if fantasy published before 1980. still I get it.. how you can retreat into these worlds when you are in emotional/physical pain etc. and just fandom in general. Good book definitely... but now I want to hear more about the faeries LOL
Teresa Nielsen Hayden
9. tnh
Neuralnet, the list of books she's reading is central to the story. They're like a rope ladder Mori is plaiting to get to somewhere better.

They're also, unless I miss my guess, the books the real Jo Walton was reading at that time.
ofostlic
10. ofostlic
I really loved this book, but it always feels somehow as if it is set further in the past than it actually must be.

Obviously Jo knows what she's talking about, and I realise that the future wasn't evenly distributed even in the past, but I did live in North Wales for several months, at roughly that time period (though as a 4-year-old kid).
Alex L
11. Quercus
I've just finished Among Others and thought it was a fabulous. I particularly liked the voice: Mori as a serious teenager, talking about magic and fairies and boarding school life and SF and honey buns in the same, equally straightforward tone. Mori is a very present, very well-drawn character: when she's given The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy as a present, I thought "hm; wouldn't have chosen that" and was oddly relieved when she actually liked it, which is not a response I've ever had to a fictional person.

I need to reread it now, to see whether the magic is still deniable or ambivalent after Wim sees the fairies, and after tnh's comment about the SF books being a rope ladder to somewhere better. Mori's use of SF as a guide to real life is neatly worked in, and made me smile a couple of times, but I suspect I've missed something.

Of the three nominees I've read so far (the others being Embassytown and Leviathon Wakes), this is by far the best.
Mordicai Knode
12. mordicai
You know what else this reminds me of, sorta? Americus.

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