Thursday, March 21, 2013

2,465: Among Others by Jo Walton

Welcome to the Among Others Blog Tour, celebrating its paperback publication today by Corsair.  Written by Montreal-based writer and poet, Jo Walton, Among Others won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel, the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel and the British Fantasy Award for Best Novel 2012.  So she must be doing something right, mustn’t she?

Among Others tells the story of Morwenna (Mori) Phelps, a Welsh teenager, who has recently suffered a terrible tragedy in which her twin sister was killed and she herself had suffered a bad leg injury.  Running away from her home, she goes to live with her father, Daniel, who had left her mother whilst she was a baby.  Daniel and his three sisters with whom he lives (and for whom he works) pack Mori off to boarding school in the English countryside.

Mori tells her story in diary form over a period of about 6 months in 1979 and 1980.  Being Welsh, not particularly wealthy, part-crippled and totally unfamiliar with the customs and practice of English boarding schools, she becomes an archetypal outsider, enjoying the friendship of only a couple of other outsiders and retreating into the worlds of science fiction and fantasy novels, of which she is a prolific and precocious consumer.  Gradually, she finds a mentor at school and a sanctuary in the local book circle where she finds acceptance and a boyfriend.

As this period and geographical setting seems to correspond to Ms Walton’s own background and as she has said herself that Among Others is her most autobiographical work, it would be tempting to view the book as a bit of a roman á clef, a thinly fictionalised version of her own adolescence.  If so, it would be OK but not much more than that - Mori is a strong protagonist but there are school novels and growing pains novels aplenty out there.

But that would be a total injustice as there are two elements that lift Among Others well above the run of the mill.  It turns out that Mori is not your average schoolgirl.  In fact, she has the gift of magic.  You see, Mori’s mother is a mighty and evil witch who was responsible for the death of Mori’s twin and is out to get her too.  Or is she?

The way in which Ms Walton treats magic and its effects is highly sophisticated.  With the exception of one scene where Mori’s new boyfriend Wim claims to be able to see the same faeries with whom Mori appears to be in frequent contact, we only have Mori’s word for its existence.  Even the remainder of her family don’t appear to acknowledge that her mother is a witch.  So, as the book progresses, the reader is left with a growing sense that, maybe, Mori’s magic is all in the mind.  After all, she has been through the trauma of her sister’s death and her own injury.  Maybe Mori is retreating into a dream world to cope with this and with the upheavals in her life.  The magic we are shown could be explained away as coincidental to events that could have occurred naturally and the big showdown between Mori and her mother at the climax of the book is open to different interpretations.  It is even open to interpretation whether Mori's mother is a witch or just a disturbed woman, struggling with her circumstances.

I’m not familiar with Ms Walton’s other books and so can’t say whether this is a theme or idea she likes to explore but it gave the book real depth and complexity.  I still can’t decide whether Mori is really magic or whether she merely believes she is.

The second unusual element has been much ballyhooed in the book’s publicity, which describes it as a “brilliant diary of first encounters with great novels”.  Indeed, amongst the blurbs from the great and the good of science fiction and fantasy is this, from the acclaimed author, Robin Hobb:

“If you love SF and fantasy, if reading it formed your teen years, if you do remember the magic you used to do, if you remember the absolute joy of first discovering those books, then read this.”

As I mentioned earlier in this post, Mori is a prolific reader of science fiction and fantasy and much of her diary, and hence the book, is taken up with discussion of the various books she has been reading.  To a point, it’s fun.  I suspect most of the target audience of Among Others will identify at least one book, if not more, that they discovered as a child.  Ms Walton also captures the authentic certainty of judgment of the precocious teenager.  After a while, though, it does get a bit overpowering and I felt that the amount of time spent expounding on the books she was reading threatened to unbalance the story and didn’t really have any plot function other than to explain why she spent so much time in the library and at the book club and to give some colour to Mori.

All in all though, I don’t think this is likely really to trouble the reader as he or she is more likely to be spotting the books they’ve read and maybe reliving the memory of the first time - I certainly did.
Among Others is an excellent novel that deals with the concept of magic in an interesting and thought-provoking way, making it far greater than a straight “genre” novel.  It works as a novel about magic, as a novel of growing up and as a novel about being an outsider.

I’m very grateful to Constable & Robinson for giving me a copy and even more grateful that they are kindly offering to give away three copies of Among Others.  So, if you'd like to be in with a chance to win a copy, just drop me an email at 2606books [at] gmail [dot] com

If you’d like to read more about Among Others, please do pay a visit to the other stops on this book tour:

Monday 18th March
Tuesday 19th March
Wednesday 20th March
Friday 22nd March
Saturday 23rd March
Sunday 24th March
Monday 25th March


Lisa said...

I remember reading some great reviews of this when it first came out. My introduction to Jo Walton was through the "spare change" series - thrillers, with no magic. I have her take on a Victorian novel - with dragons! on the TBR shelf - and I've had Among Others on the TBR list. Since I was lucky enough to win a book here last year, I won't put myself in for this one.

Mark said...

Intriguing premise for a story. Wow, it sounds like you've read a lot of book, very cool:)