Book Review - Among Others by Jo Walton
January 18th, 2011
360 pages (Portrait View)
It’s not often I get excited about an urban fantasy novel featuring reluctant Fairies, of all things, but Jo Walton’s Among Others gives me good reason to be thrilled. The story evolves around fifteen year old Morwenna Phelps, Mori to her friends, who is an avid Science Fiction fan(atic) and a voracious reader. After a terrible car accident, Mori is farmed out by her family to her long-absent father and is forced, under protest and duress, to attend a prestigious, all-girl private high school. To make matters worse her estranged mother, who she believes is a witch, appears to be hatching a plot to gain control over the most powerful of all magic. Did I mention that Mori can see and speak to Fairies and ghosts? And, as hard as that is to believe, it gets even better as the story develops.
We are shown, through first person narrative in the form of diary entries, Mori’s experiences at the private prep-school where she is the ultimate outsider. New to the school, disabled in the car accident, and incredibly smart and well-read for her age Mori is shunned by the popular kids and searches for friendship among the other outcasts. The back-story, hinted at in the prologue, is slowly revealed as the story unfolds. We discover that Mori’s twin sister died in the car accident that disabled her and that she believes her mother is an evil witch who was responsible for the accident and is now prepping to become an all-powerful magical queen. Much of the story is revealed during dialogue between Mori, her outcast school friends, and members of the book club she’s found at the local library where she happily settles in among other like-minded thinkers who also happen to be Science Fiction fans.
Among Others is a perfectly paced, wonderfully crafted and imaginative tale that should appeal to the casual reader as well as to the genre specific fantasy reader. It has all the elements great stories need to thrive; identifiable characters, a unique plot, a dark layer that occasionally rises to the surface, engrossing dialogue, and an underlying mystery that is slowly exposed as the story reaches its climax. Add to that the many references to works by some of the greatest Science Fiction writers that have ever put pen to paper and you have a highly entertaining novel.
On a personal note I’d like to add that I identified closely with this story as soon as the main character began discussing the Science Fiction books that she’d read. Her list included a veritable Who’s Who of the most prominent Science Fiction authors of the last seventy five years. Robert Silverberg, Ursula le Guin, J. R. R Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelazny, Isaac Asimov, Anne McCaffrey, Samuel R. Delaney, and many others are mentioned by name as are the titles of their most prominent works. Ms. Walton, who obviously knows and understands the subject matter, excels at weaving the themes and messages from those books into Among Others. (What a unique and novel idea. I secretly wish I’d thought of it.) One of the most fascinating things about this book is that the main characters’ list of books and authors is suspiciously familiar to me. Jo Walton’s Science Fiction reading list is so similar to mine, in fact, that I think she must have travelled back in time to peak over my shoulder when I was developing it. Since most of the story takes place in 1979, when I was 20, there’s no wonder our lists match so closely.
I’ve read somewhere that Among Others is semi-autobiographical and as an avid long-time Science Fiction fan myself I see no reason to dispute that. It makes perfect sense and I love the way many of the themes from classic Science Fiction stories were integrated into this story. There is a lesson to be learned here; we are what we read. I for one, wish everyone could devour Among Others and the classic Science Fiction novels mentioned in it. The world would be a much better place for it. That Jo Walton has a gift for language and an incredible imagination goes without saying but it is her unusual voice, her grasp of timing, and the images she paints with her words that are most memorable to me. Her dialogue is always interesting, her descriptions of scenes and events compelling, and her plot, sub-plots, and characters are tightly woven, subtly human in every respect, and whole.
I recommended Among Others for those who enjoy a little Fairy dust sprinkled on their stories, Urban Fantasy enthusiasts, Science Fiction fans (and fanatics), those who love a good story, YA followers, aficionados of good literature, young adults, old adults, and anyone with an uncommonly good reading sense.
5 ½ out of 5 stars