Why I Read It: I’ve been dying to read this book ever since it was released. The only reason I hadn’t yet was because at the time of its release, I still had two unread Jo Walton books in my TBR, and I was trying to be good and not add to it, especially since I didn’t know if I’d enjoy Walton’s fiction to begin with. Since I read those two books last year, and decided that I did, indeed, enjoy Jo Walton’s fiction, I couldn’t wait to get my hands on this one, especially since so many people had so many wonderful things to say about it. Furthermore, it won the Nebula, and it’s been nominated for the Hugo! Book clubbers voted this as our July read, so read it I did. And while it’s early in the month for discussion, let’s get to it!
The premise: ganked from BN.com: Startling, unusual, and irresistibly readable, Among Others is at once the compelling story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood, a brilliant diary of first encounters with the great novels of modern fantasy and science fiction, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.
As a child growing up in Wales, Morwenna played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. When her half-mad mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled — and her twin sister dead.
Fleeing to a father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England — a place all but devoid of true magic. There, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off….
Combining elements of autobiography with flights of imagination, this is a stunning new novel by an author whose genius has already been hailed by dozens of her peers.
Spoilers, yay or nay?: Yay. As with all book club selections, both my review and the comments will be riddled with spoilers, so if you’re spoiler-phobic, please skip to “My Rating” and you’ll be just fine. Everyone else, onward!
Discussion: Let’s start with the obvious: first and foremost, this book is an homage to the genre. A love letter. Not just a love letter to science fiction and fantasy, but to the joys of reading, the joy of visiting libraries and bookstores. It’a love letter to fandom and in some subtler ways, perhaps to even the setting itself. Above all else, THAT is was this book is. A kind of fictional memoir of a girl coming of age and dealing with all the trauma that the teenage years have to offer. It’s a book about how the transformative power of books can pull people out of bad situations, because surely without her love for fiction, Mori would have chosen to die.
All of this is a good thing. But it wasn’t what I expected, and therein lies the disappointment.
But let’s back up a bit.
It’s rare that we see a story that takes place AFTER the BIG EPIC EVENT. The stories that take place after the world has been saved and the heroes go home. Stories about the aftermath. This concept fascinates me, but this is only the second time I’ve read such a tale. The first was K.J. Parker’s The Company (review LJ || WP). The second is this, Jo Walton’s Among Others. The two books could not be more different, yet I never had any expectations that Walton’s book would be in any way similar to Parker’s either. I just want to point out: knowing the story after the big STORY is a fascinating and seductive concept. Hell, I just got back from The Dark Knight Rises, and while I was thrilled with the end, I’ve already heard people cry, “But what happens next? You can’t leave it here!”
So I can’t discount that desire, to know more, to see what happens after the One Ring is destroyed in Mount Doom and Frodo returns to the Shire. The trick is, for Frodo, he could not enjoy life, despite the fact that the world kept turning regardless of what he did to save it. Mori herself describes it:
I didn’t ask to have my good leg replaced by a creaky rusty weathervane, but then I suppose nobody does. I would have made much greater sacrifices. I was prepared to die, and Mor did die. I should think of it as a war-wound, an old soldier’s scars. Frodo lost a finger, and all his own possibility of happiness. Tolkien understood about the things that happen after the end. Because this is after the end, this is all the Scouring of the Shire, this is figuring out how to live in the time that wasn’t supposed to happen after the glorious last stand. I saved the world, or I think I did, and look, the world is still here, with sunsets and interlibrary loans. And it doesn’t care about me any more than the Shire cared about Frodo.
And the real trick is that for THESE stories, the ones that take place after the battle has been won and the world has been saved, THESE stories have one major difference from the above-mentioned franchises: the difference is that in both Parker’s The Company and Jo Walton’s Among Others, the reader never knows these people until the AFTER. These books aren’t final attempts to give devoted readers of a series what they want. These books are stories where the authors assume that we can all imagine THE BIG EVENT well enough that knowing it happened is enough. These stories are where what happened AFTER is more important.
Or is it?
Mori’s BIG EVENT was to stop her mother from doing a magic that would make her a Dark Queen, and Mori succeeds, at great cost: she’s left a cripple, but worse, she suffers the death of her twin sister. The story picks up where Mori is meeting her biological father for the first time, as her previous guardian, her grandfather, had a stroke and could no longer care for her, leaving her alone with her mother, and Mori wouldn’t have any of that. Mori’s father Daniel lives with his three half-sisters, and Mori’s sent off to boarding school. The book itself is a diary, one that takes us through the day-to-day minutiae of boarding school as well as Mori’s reactions to what she’s reading. Added to that are her weekend trips to the library, her inclusion into the SF/F discussion group at the library, and the blossom of first love. Mixed through-out this we learn Mori’s history, we learn about how magic works, and we learn that her mother is still trying to reach her, somehow, some way, to do some great dark deed.
It’s easy to take this book at its word, and believe that everything that’s happened DID, indeed, happen, and that the magic and fairies are real. The fairies, I must say, are fantastically done. I loved Walton’s descriptions of them. And the magic, the insidious way it works, is quite clever. A magic system that can so easily be explained by logic? That’s fantastic. But it’s also one of those things that creates a divide in terms of how you interpret this book.
Now, I’m about to make a generalization, but bear with me: if you give this book to a regular SF/F reader, and ask the question, “Is the magic real?” I believe the answer will be, more often than not, “Of course.”
If you give this book to someone who tends to read more literary fiction and ask that reader the same question, I suspect the answer will be more along the lines of, “Of course not. It’s a metaphor.”
And while I’m one of those regular SF/F readers, frankly, I thought the fantastic elements were nothing but a metaphor. To be honest, I found Mori to be one of the most unreliable narrators I’ve ever read, and yet there’s nothing in the resolution of the book that “proves” my theory. But bear with me, because this is what I was expecting while reading:
I believed that Mori had an active imagination, maybe due to her voracious reading, maybe not. Whatever the case, her twin sister went along with it, and together, they built up this great big narrative about their mother the witch and believed they must stop her. That game got Mori injured and her sister killed, and the magic we see in the book is nothing more than Mori’s way of dealing with that trauma. Or, to put a more disturbing point on it, if we believe that Mori’s mother is mad instead of a witch, that her mother suffers from a mental illness, could Mori not suffer the same? What if there was NEVER a twin sister to start with? What if that was all part of Mori’s imagination and the accident forced her to let that go?
But wait, you say: others saw the fairies!
Well, maybe. Sure, Wim SAID he saw the fairies, but he wanted to believe, didn’t he? And it wasn’t as if the fairies spoke in a way anyone could understand, and pardon me if I’m wrong, but did Wim ever hear them? Or was he allowing himself to sink into the power of imagination? Or was it something even simpler? He liked Mori, and was going to say whatever it took to stay in her good graces?
Of course, if that’s the case, that makes his insistence that Mori should kill her mother a more than a little disturbing. But if he didn’t take it seriously, if he thought it was a game, not realizing the game was a product of Mori’s own mentally unstable state, then maybe it’s not that disturbing after all. Maybe when he does realize it’s more than simple imagination, he gathers Daniel and Sam to go help her or stop her, or what have you.
But what about the aunts?
Well, what ABOUT the aunts? Because I don’t trust Mori as a narrator, it’s far too easy to read that scene in a mundane fashion: a little girl pitching a fit because she doesn’t want holes in her ears. No doubt, back then, earrings were far less common, so it was probably a traumatic experience. Hell, I was born in 1980 and I didn’t get my ears pierced until fifth grade. But that scene, that revelation about her aunts, is never proven one way or the other, you know? You could read it both ways, and both ways are equally probable.
And that’s the problem with the whole book. Despite the big showdown at the end, which came out of nowhere and surprised me because I was so convinced this was all in her head, we’re never given hard proof one way or the other that this is REAL or IMAGINARY. And maybe that’s Walton’s intent. And maybe it’s both. But I wish the book had leaned more strongly one way or the other, because that end was just so strange. Daniel didn’t see anything, of course, but it would’ve helped if he had, because he wouldn’t have been prompted.
You might think I’m just having a hard time letting go of my pet theory. That may be true. But as I’m sitting here, reviewing the book, I have to ask: is Mori’s sister ever referred to by someone other than Mori? Does anyone volunteer talking about her without prompting by Mori herself? Her family certainly doesn’t seem to be suffering from the loss of a child; it’s as if Mori is the only one grieving, but maybe that’s all part of the mother’s magic, by erasing one twin out of existence? That would coincide nicely with the magic system as created in the book, wouldn’t it?
So either this is all very genius, or it’s an imitative fallacy, or it’s both. And I’ll be honest, it’s going to take another read of this material before I decide one way or the other.
What I think would’ve shed more light on the interpretation of the book would’ve been if I’d been more familiar with all the titles Mori discusses in her journal. I’d read more than I thought, mind you, but I hadn’t read everything, and I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps knowing those fiction pieces being discussed would illuminate whatever Mori was going through at the time, particularly in regards to shedding light on whether the magic was real or not. I kept coming back to the final line of the novel:
Gate of Ivrel turns out to be really brill.
It’s an odd ending, which lead me to wonder if it’s really just the final line in a girl’s journal entry gushing about books, or if knowing the story of Gate of Ivrel would shed light on the events of the ending, whether they were real or imaginary. I haven’t read that book, and I glanced at a synopsis and all I can tell you is that it complements Mori’s decision when faced with the prospect of being reunited with her twin. And truthfully, for the instances where I was rather familiar with the books mentioned, they didn’t necessarily impart a great understanding of the text. Again, this is one of those cases though where perhaps re-reading will illuminate the story in new and exciting ways, particularly if I go crazy and decide to read all the books mentioned in this one BEFORE re-reading it.
Yeah, that’s not going to happen any time soon. I don’t mean that in a disparaging way either: I just mean that it’s a big project and therefore, it’ll be a long time before I can commit to something like that.
But there is one moment that I did feel Walton was trying to steer us in one direction, a direction that supports my interpretation. I haven’t read the series, but Mori is discussing the Covenant books with one of the librarians, and he explains (emphasis mine):
“Thomas Covenant is a leper who mopes his way around a fantasy world most of us would give our right arms to be in, refusing to believe anything is real.”
“If it’s from the point of view of a depressed leper who doesn’t believe in it, I’m glad I haven’t read them!”
He laughed. “There are some great giants. And it is a fantasy world, unless he’s mad, which he thinks he is and you can’t tell.
So there’s my proof! The book supports my theory! A little…
The thing about this book is that it’s so easy to relate to. Mori is, that is. Even though I didn’t find her to be a reliable narrator, I thoroughly appreciated her ravenous appetite for reading and her thrill of finding others, like herself, who take the genre seriously and want to talk about it. I relate in the fact that I always felt like the odd girl out growing up, and it took a while to find my place.
Of course, when I was very young, I also imagined I had a twin sister and desperately tried to convince my friends of this fact. No one ever believed me, of course, but you can understand why, because I can relate to Mori in other ways, why I’d believe she’d make up a twin, can’t you?
At any rate, I told myself I wanted to be careful with my rating of this book, in that I don’t rate it for how I wished the book had turned out, but rather, rate it based on what the book actually is. So what is it?
It’s not a YA. I know, I know. We have a teen protagonist. But amongst the many great comments I received in Does YA Ever Matter Anymore?, one commenter said she used the following criteria to determine whether a book was YA or not:
1.I expect the protagonist to be a teen, and the book itself will often be a coming-of-age story.
2.I expect the writing to be accessible and the structure to be relatively simple, making it a quick read.
3.I expect that while there may be romance and even sex, the sex will not be explicit or graphic.
As far as Among Others is concerned, it doesn’t quite meet criteria #2. The structure is definitely not complicated, but I didn’t find it to be a quick read at all, despite the page length, and I’m just not sure how well the book would hold the attentions of teens who probably don’t have much invested in ’70s SF/F. But there’s also the fact that really, nothing happens in this book. There is no real narrative. Mori journals about her day-to-day life, has showdown with her mother, THE END. That’s it.
Of course, that’s simplifying things. It’s not that Mori doesn’t have obstacles to overcome: she’s dealing with the grief of losing her sister, and the shock of her new family and schooling situation. It’s most certainly a character-driven novel, though when I look at the structure, I found myself wondering how successful each “entry” was. The thought came about because I was reviewing some old critiques of my thesis novel wherein one commenter talked about how each chapter should move the plot forward in some way, in some definitive way. So I’ve been discussing that with other writer friends of mine, and then I looked at Among Others (because that’s what I was reading at the time) and wondered if this book should even be held to that “standard.” After all, it is, essentially, a teen girl’s diary. God knows diaries aren’t meant to have narrative structure. I should also note this isn’t a criticism, that Walton’s book doesn’t follow that “rule.” It’s just an observation and perhaps a discussion point: should all books follow that rule, or should there be exceptions, and why should the exceptions be granted?
And it’s not as if there isn’t any conflict. It’s all inner conflict, but there’s certainly growth, and magic becomes a metaphor for this, in regards to how Mori decides to use (or not use) it. I will say that I did worry that the constant use of SF/F titles and Mori’s gushing (or disappointment in) said titles were shorthand for actual development and metaphor. I’ve already discussed that I feel like I was missing something by not having read most everything referenced in the book, so I can’t make that worry a criticism nor an observation, though I will say that if that was the intent, it shortchanges every reader who isn’t familiar with the title in question, thereby making Among Others a little bit weaker. Yet, even with the titles I did recognize, I never felt like I was getting a super-special insight to the story, so I could be off-base there.
I did have trouble, though, separating Mori’s voice from that of the author. We do learn this book is a bit autobiographical, but how much so I don’t know. Yet I’m familiar with Jo Walton’s posts on Tor.com, and reading this book sometimes had me merging Mori with Walton, a dangerous thing, because a reader should never assume the main character is a stand-in for the author, and when those lines are blurred, I’ve always felt like something needs to be fixed (I’ve had this problem with the latter Kitty Norville books too). I remember being in writing workshop as an undergrad, and one of my friends submitted a story based on a trip to the UK she took with her mother and brother. I was the only one in the group who knew what the story was based on, and during the critique session, pretty much everyone commented on how much the narrator of the story was a bitch.
Of course, my friend didn’t take this well at all. When she was finally allowed to talk about her piece, it was pretty uncomfortable when she said it was based on real life, prompting a discussion about creative nonfiction and how far authors need to separate their lives from their fiction should the two ever blur. I don’t have any great conclusions about the subject either. It’s just a sticky one. And in the case of Among Others, I wonder — if indeed this book is more autobiographical than not — perhaps that limited the plot more than necessary? I don’t know, and I make no assumptions. This review is full of a lot of questions, that’s all.
And even though this book is meant to be a teen girl’s diary, the section where Mori explains her family tree, when it ends up playing very little into the story itself and even she mentions we don’t need to know it all? That drove me batty! As a diary, this is realistic. For a book of fiction, I wanted to take a red pen and mark that stuff out. Oh well.
I did get a laugh out of how this book was kind of a reverse Harry Potter, wherein magic was concentrated at school for Harry, but for Mori, school was the one place where magic seemed to be gone. She explains why:
There’s no chance for anything to become imbued, to come alive through fondness. Nothing here is aware, no chair, no cup. Nobody can get fond of anything.
And the magic, ambiguous as it is, is rather fascinating. And I have to wonder, is it a bad thing that it’s so ambiguous? In that it’s causing me fits in terms of deciding how to interpret the book, then yes. But looking at it separate from the book, as a viable magic system on its own right, it’s kind of genius in a weird way. That being said, I still think Mori made it all up.
However, I do need to bring up one thing that happened in this book that freaked me out a bit, because after it happens, it’s never mentioned again, and more perplexing, none of the reviews I’ve read mention it either.
It’s the scene where Daniel, drunk, comes back to the room and tries to get in bed with Mori and tries to kiss her. She states she has to push him away, and he goes to the other bed and sleeps off his stupor, and it’s never mentioned again.
WTF? No, seriously, WTF? How exactly does this add to the story, and what am I supposed to take away from it? Mori kind of expresses a weird regret that she told him no before thinking about it (you’ll just have to read the passage to get it) because it’s nice to be wanted, and in her crippled state, she doesn’t think anyone will ever want her. But this isn’t a story about a girl who’s abused by her father, nor is it a story about a girl who falls in love with her father. So why’s it there? Is it just a thing that happened that gets swept under the rug, never to be mentioned again? A dirty little family secret?
Maybe that’s realistic. But no matter how realistic this book is being, I don’t need it here. It was utterly distracting, and not to take away from anyone who has experienced such a frightening situation, but when it comes to fiction, a writer must be very careful and very deliberate about such things, because all too often, such things are gratuitous or just badly and insensitively done. I still don’t know what I’m supposed to take away from that scene, and I really wish it hadn’t been there. I also really hope this wasn’t one of those autobiographical things the author stuck in the book, for all kinds of reasons.
We also never get a resolution to Mori’s thought that the only reason Wim is with her is to gain access to magic. It’s never resolved, and that’s a shame, because it’s an interesting idea on so many levels, but it’s not one that gets explored fully.
I did like how the end of the book came full circle, setting-wise, with the beginning, though I wondered why the fairies didn’t push her to join her sister at Halloween. I suspect that has a lot to do with how Mori thinks she understands the fairies but doesn’t really, but it was a tense moment besides. I wonder what the results would have really been had she decided to die, if she’d decided to join her sister instead. And while you all know I have my doubts about what’s real and what wasn’t in this book, I did love the image of:
The pages were turning to trees as soon as she tore them, and sooner. The book, which was in her hands, became a huge mass of ivy and bramble, spreading everywhere.
Now that I’ve babble ad nauseam about the book itself, let’s highlight some of the writing:
The still pool was like old unpolished pewter, reflecting the chimney flames as unfaithful wavering streaks.
And then there’s the introduction of the aunts, who reminded me very much of the three witches in Macbeth (perhaps intentionally so):
They call me “Morwenna,” very formally.
“Arlinghurst is one of the best girls’ schools in the country,” one of them said.
“We all went there,” another chimed in.
“We had the jolliest time,” the third finished.
Though I should note, I’m referring to Verdi’s opera, Macebeth and “The Witches’ Chorus” in act one.
A part I think a lot of readers can relate to:
When I look at other people, other girls in school, and see what they like and what they’re happy with and what they want, I don’t feel as if I’m part of their species. And sometimes — sometimes I don’t care. I care about so few people really. Sometimes it feels as if it’s only books that make life worth living, like on Halloween when I wanted to be alive because I hadn’t finished Babel 17. I’m sure that isn’t normal. I care more about the people in books than the people I see every day.
This part stood out to me because I’ve wanted to say this so many times in so many situations. I can’t help but think the world would be a better place if more people abided by the philosophy suggested:
What difference does it make if he feels guilty after the fact? “Don’t apologise, just don’t do it again,” I said. He winced.
I did love the bit at the end, with the three men coming to “save” her, but
I didn’t need them in the least, but it was lovely to see them.
My Rating: 6 – Worth Reading, with Reservations
I know, I know. A ton of people love this book to pieces. And I suspect a year and a half’s worth of hype is part of the reason I found myself disappointed while reading, yet I can’t tell you what my expectations were for the book before I started reading it, except maybe thinking that this would blow all the other Hugo nominees out of the water. Yet, despite that disappointment, there is so much about this book to chew on, to consider, to examine and reexamine in a completely new light. While I’m sure others will disagree, there are so many ways to interpret this book, and because of that, it makes great fodder for discussion AND re-reading, because with re-reading, one can decide to look for clues that supports one interpretation over the other, and then on another re-read, you can look for clues for the opposite theory. And that, in and of itself, makes so much sense when you consider Jo Walton is an avid fan of re-reading, so why shouldn’t she write a book that begs multiple interpretations and therefore invites multiple re-reads? Now that I know what to expect, I imagine a re-read will be a completely different experience, and one day, I’ll get to see what that experience is.
Yet, for what the book is, there’s a lot left in the ether, a lot of loose ends that bother me. While reading, I couldn’t help but notice how little I had left as I approached the end, and there was so much, in my mind, to resolve that I had no idea how it would be done. And while there is an epic ending (real or imagined), said ending is both pat and abrupt, leaving me more than a little unsatisfied. The ambiguity of the book, like the book’s magic system, is both a plus and a minus for the story. And unfortunately, at least upon first read, I don’t think the book provides enough ammo for either side to be right or wrong. I think it’s eternally ambiguous, though as I said before, perhaps I’ll change my mind upon re-reading.
Still, I was reminded of the graphic novel Joe the Barbarian by Grant Morrison: a story that pushes the reader to the limit in terms of ambiguity. The argument for the fantasy world being a by-product of Joe’s sugar-deprived state (he’s diabetic) is a very compelling one, yet the fantasy world interacts with the real world in such a way that one wonders: are both real? And once we get to the end, the question of what was real and what wasn’t doesn’t matter in terms of the outcome of the story, so rather than feeling frustrated by that ambiguity, the reader is left to admire it.
I wanted to admire this book and its ambiguity. I didn’t. Perhaps too-high expectations worked against me, and maybe now that expectations are in check, I’ll be able to appreciate the book for what it is, rather than what I want it to be. But that’ll take another read, and that will take a while since, unlike Mori, I don’t have hours upon hours every day to read gobs of books.
Of Jo Walton’s work, though, I still think Tooth and Claw is my favorite out of what I’ve read (Farthing and Among Others), which is ironic, since it’s the one I thought I’d like the least. While Among Others didn’t grab me the way I’d hoped, I can see why it grabbed so many others, since it is, first and foremost, a love letter to the genre. It won’t get my vote for Hugo, but since it’s already won the Nebula, that may not matter. Walton is still a solid writer in my book, and I look forward to getting my hands on more of her fiction in the future.
Cover Commentary: I’ve always liked it. While Mori is described as having short hair in the book, I suspect the longhaired model represents who she used to be rather than who she is. The coloring is nice, and I like the placement of the font as well as the sparkles. Love the sparkles!