Sunday, March 18, 2012

Review: Among Others, by Jo Walton

I recently read Among Others, by Jo Walton, of International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day fame. (She blogs entertainingly at She "live-blogged" re-reading the Miles Vorkosigan saga in publication order, which I found quite interesting. And I commend her post on The Suck Fairy.)

Among Others came out last year and got such effusive praise from other writers that I wondered whether it was a case of a book from "a writer's writer", who (similar to "an actor's actor" or "a comedian's comedian") is someone doing stuff that is interesting but not compelling to anyone other than people in the same field. I am happy to have been proven wrong. Or maybe what it is is that Jo Walton is "an SF reader's SF reader", and since I'm an SF reader, it really worked for me. I do fear that it would not work as well for someone who hadn't been an SF-steeped 15-year-old.

Among Others is the (first-person) story of fifteen-year-old Mori (Morwenna), who has fled her half-insane mother in Wales after an accident that killed her twin sister and shattered her leg. In the summer of 1979, she ends up with her father (who had abandoned them as children), because British law prevents her extended family in Wales from being able to take her in. She is sent to an English boarding school, where she is basically the designated outcast: Welsh, semi-crippled, academically talented, and constantly reading SF and fantasy, which buffer her from the pain of her life.

Oh, yeah — there are also fairies and magic. The magic is (usually) subtle and intertwines slowly through the story.

Half-autobiography (Walton explains in an afterward that getting her own childhood right was way harder than historical research), half-fantasy, this setup could have been a twee or treacle disaster. But Mori's whip-smart, clever-but-not-worldly, astringent voice is a treat to read. I laughed out loud multiple times and subjected everyone within earshot to (sometimes extensive) quoting.

You could argue that "not much happens" in the book — most of the action is interior, but that hardly matters. I enjoyed reading it immensely.

As much as anything, the book is a love letter to reading and interacting with other readers, and to libraries and librarians. A central part of the plot is Mori discovering an SF reader group in the town where her school is located; she had performed a small magic to find herself a group with which to fit in (a karass, in Kurt Vonnegut's language from Cat's Cradle), and it is an open question (for Mori herself as well as for us) whether the magic caused this or if it was just luck, or fate. We get to see Mori read, discuss, and analyze books that were just coming out (or just arriving in England), and there are occasional in jokes for those of us who have read the books she's reading (e.g. Mori wonders about the implication of some feature of a book that, which that book's [still-in-the-future for Mori] sequel will address).

If you've ever been fifteen and reading was an escape, or "merely" a joy, and especially if you were reading SF at that point, I strongly recommend Among Others.

Also of potential interest: Jo Walton's "Big Idea" post on John Scalzi's Whatever blog.

Places to purchase Among Others: Amazon BN Powell's Harvard Bookstore