Review: ‘Among Others’ by Jo Walton

Winner of the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel. Winner of the 2011 Nebula Award for Best Novel. Startling, unusual, and yet irresistably 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 SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.

‘It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.’

Fifteen-year-old Morwenna lives in Wales with her twin sister and a mother who spins dark magic for ill. One day, Mori and her mother fight a powerful, magical battle that kills her sister and leaves Mori crippled. Devastated, Mori flees to her long-lost father in England. Adrift, outcast at boarding school, Mori retreats into the worlds she knows best: her magic and her books. She works a spell to meet kindred souls and continues to devour every fantasy and science fiction novel she can lay her hands on. But danger lurks… She knows her mother is looking for her and that when she finds her, there will be no escape.

I should note at the outset that I listened to this on audiobook; the main character is Welsh, and I have no doubt that having someone else pronounce all the Welsh place names etc made things a little easier for me. The accent was utterly delightful — and I had even more respect for the voice actor, Katherine Kellgren, when she slowly transformed Mori’s accent from pure Welsh to something with a hint of posh English (Received Pronunciation?) the longer Mori spent in an English boarding school. I can barely do my own accent, let alone manage a feat like that!

Set in 1979 and 1980 and told in diary form, this book straddles a few genres: young adult, certainly; historical fantasy; magical realism; possibly urban fantasy if you stretch the definition of urban (which I like to do!).

The main character is disabled and suffers chronic pain. She walks with a cane after she got injured in the same magical attack that killed her sister — an attack orchestrated by her mother. Mori likens her story to the Frodo’s after he returns home to the shire: the big battle is done; the losses have happened; the scars have healed, at least superficially; and now she has to learn how to live with what is left.

This story is, as much as anything, about coping and moving forward after loss.

The magic in this book is mostly very understated and almost always plausably deniable. Because I’m an old roleplaying geek, what it reminded me of most is the way magic works in the World of Darkness roleplaying game Mage: the Ascension — specifically coincidental magic, which doesn’t violate the “consensus” (or non-mages’ common understanding of how the world works).

But in some ways, magic in this book is also more powerful than consensus magic, because it can rewrite the past to ensure that a present event comes to pass in a way that the magic user wants it to. Mori spends a lot of time wondering about the ethics of using magic — more time than she does actually doing it. Because she has seen the effect on the world that a power-hungry magic user can have on others, she usually decides not to do anything at all.

As well as the supernatural side of things, Among Others also touches on other issues, such as puberty, sex and LGBT couples. (One of her relatives lives with another woman; Mori is refreshingly matter-of-fact about it, the same way she is about her cane use and chronic pain.)

The other delightful thing about this book is that Mori spends just as much time enthusing about books as she does talking about magic and faeries and her new crush. She’s a science-fiction and fantasy fan, and is buying books at a time when a lot of big names in those genres are producing their most famous works. Sometimes her review of a book might be “I liked it, though it’s a bit weird”, and other times she goes deep into the text and compares it to books by other writers in a way that would do an English teacher proud.

Unfortunately for me, my speculative fiction reading growing up was almost exclusively fantasy, so there are only maybe three or four writers that she mentions that I have actually read myself. I think if you’re a sci-fi fan, Among Others will be a much richer read for you.

But, despite that, this was still a five-star read for me. Thanks to my friend Barbara for recommending it!

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