Among Others, Jo Walton

Tor, 2010, 302 pages, C$28.99 hc, ISBN 978-0-7653-2153-4

I have the good fortune to count Jo Walton amongst my acquaintances, and I only name-drop because I want to establish some credibility when I say that Among Others is a book much like Jo Walton herself: Smart, kind, funny, perceptive and unapologetically in love with written Science-Fiction and Fantasy.  The book itself is a subtle fantasy, a tribute to the power of reading as self-actualization and, I suspect, a fair chunk of autobiography as well.

Taking place in-between Wales and England, Among Others brings us back to the savage days of 1979-1980 in diary form.  Our narrator/heroine, Mori, is not in the best of circumstances.  She and her twin sister may have saved the world from the evil that is their mother, but not without consequences: her twin sister is dead, her mother hates her, and she’s been exiled to a boarding school in accursed England, far from home and the fairies that have come to be her companions.  Mercifully, Walton doesn’t go back in time to explain the backstory, instead focussing on Mori’s life at the boarding school and the difficult process of reintegration as she comes to grip with the death of her twin sister, one diary entry at a time.

As a fantasy novel, Among Other is subtle to the point of being almost deniable.  The fairies that occupy post-industrial Wales are neither good nor bad, but they certainly use Mori for their own end.  When she completes a ritual to shut down a poisonous factory near her town, it doesn’t crumble to dust as much as it closes down the next day, causing thousands to lose their jobs in the process.  Later, when Mori wishes for a group of like-minded people to ease her loneliness, she ends up discovering a local SF book club.  Magic, in Mori’s world, may be about rejigging cause-and-effect as much as it may be a metaphor for taking control one one’s destiny.  (Daydreaming between chapters of the novel, I found myself tangentially wondering about those people for whom everything seems to go right –it doesn’t take much to imagine them as unconscious magicians in a universe that allows for subtle nudges to destiny.)

A sufficiently blinkered reader could read Among Others as fanciful realism, but that’s missing the point of Walton’s affectionate blend of teenage memoirs, genre references and non-metaphorical fantasy elements.  While the paper-heavy ending has enough thematic resonances to make any book-lover purr aloud, it’s a real, albeit unconventional fantasy.  Any other kind of reading is being wilfully obstinate.

This being said, Among Others is most rewarding as a novel aimed at genre readers.  Mori, seeking reintegration in the absence of her twin sister and isolated by her exile to a boarding school, soon turns to the local library and the available genre fiction.  As a diary of an omnivorous teenage reader, Among Others is filled with in-jokes about classic Science Fiction and Fantasy as Mori reads a book every two days and jots down notes to herself.  It’s also, perhaps more crucially, an uplifting homage to books and to readers and how even lonely introverts can find a community and a place in the world.  Mori is a tough, resilient, sympathetic protagonist –the things she brushes off would traumatize most so-called “normal” people, and her genre-influenced mindset is another tool she uses to understand her environment.  Among Others will be a comforting read to anyone who spent a lot of time in libraries as a teenager, and those who even today, as fully-functional adults, can recall how they were shaped by their reading.

It all amounts to a lovely novel, fascinating in the details as much as it’s interesting in its overall dramatic arc.  I suspect that Among Others is designed to appeal first and foremost to avid readers; casual fans of fantasy may not find as much here to love as those who have undergone extended loneliness like Mori.  At the same time, it’s a fantasy novel that deals in shades of meaning, subtle moments and complex characters.  It’s satisfying from beginning to end, and it lends itself to fascinating conversations.  It’s an ideal novel for book-clubs and book lovers.

But don’t tell Jo I wrote that, as I have a contrarian reputation to maintain.

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