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Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others by Jo Walton
Book Name: Among Others
Author: Jo Walton
Publisher(s): TOR
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audio Book / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy / Science Fiction
Release Date: January 18, 2011

Hugo Award-winning author Suzy McKee Charnas called Walton’s Among Others, “a love letter, laced with sharp-edged anguish and triumph, from within the SF/F genres to the SF/F genres.” I balked. A love letter? How entertaining could a fantasy novel’s “love letter to the genre” be to a reader? But then I looked a little closer and saw the endorsements all over the book from authors who I adore and respect: Robin Hobb, Patrick Rothfuss, and Cory Doctorow, among others. If they read the book and loved it, I wondered, it couldn’t be all that bad, right? Still, I was skeptical. The book’s synopsis made me wonder if I was jumping into some strange, pseudo-literary fantasy pond that I wouldn’t know how to escape from.

In a nutshell, the book is a coming-of-age story, wrapped in elements of fantasy, literary drama, and blatant tributes to the great SF/F authors of the past. The story is presented in diary format (which really made me scratch my head—when was the last time you read a fantasy novel in diary format?), but don’t let that put you off. It works. I also suggest that you pay attention to the dates—understanding how time flows within the story, and the development of the main character within time, adds a subtle layer of complexity and, I might add, overall enjoyment of the piece.

We meet the main character, Morwenna Phelps, as she’s recalling a memory from 1975. She and her sister are on a quest to destroy a factory, because “the fairies” asked them to. They perform a magical ritual as only ten-year-old girls can, and find themselves incredibly disappointed when the factory doesn’t explode or fall down immediately. However, the next morning, Morwenna reads in the newspaper that the factory was suddenly shut down overnight. Permanently. Convinced the ritual worked, she lets the reader know—using her candid and straightforward way of presenting her truth—that the reader is to think of her journal as a memoir, with the warning that it “isn’t a nice story, and [it] isn’t an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.”

Flash forward to 1979, and Morwenna is being sent away to live with relatives in the countryside. She’s not quite sure how she feels about the move—and at this point, we’re not sure why she has to leave home. But her mood shifts quickly once she realizes that the house contains a study full of books (throughout the novel, both fantasy and sci-fi books are referred to under the genre heading of “science-fiction”, which I believe is a reflection of the at-the-time common practice of shelving and publishing both SF/F under the same banner). Here, we learn our main character has spent the summer nearly bookless, after running away from her mother several months before, with only Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, LeGuin’s The Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Volume 2, and Boyd’s The Last Starship from Earth to keep her company.

Among Others (detail)

It’s clear to the reader that Morwenna is an outsider. She keeps more or less to herself, is socially awkward, and finds solace in books. While we don’t learn for quite some time what exactly happened to cause her to run away from her mother, or where her sister is (and in the interest of keeping this review spoiler-free, I’ll just say that it’s worth the reveal when it comes!), we do learn a lot about the rest of her family. Morwenna is a keen listener, and sees things that others can’t. What in particular? Fairies. She still believes in them, and insists that she can see and speak to them. As the reader, it’s hard to know if she’s being truthful or making it up, but part of the delight of the novel is the uncertainty coming from what could potentially be an unreliable narrator. She’s so straightforward in all things, but fairies? It seems bizarre, coming from such a practical girl.

After the move, she hates her new school. She’s desperate for a connection with someone—anyone—and discovers the magic of interlibrary loan at the town library. While that might sound boring, imagine being able to read all your favourite fantasy novels again for the very first time. Remember the wonder, the delight, and the disbelief at some of those twists and turns? Do you remember your breath catching on your very first time through Dragonflight, or the amazement the first time your imagination stepped into the Courts of Chaos?

Throughout the literal chaos of Morwenna’s life, the reader re-discovers these long-familiar fantastic worlds through her eyes. We experience her excitement, her disappointment, her thrill at finding a new author whose imagination is like a soulmate to her own. We’ve all been there, but after we’ve read so many books, the magic is often lost. Morwenna’s reading log is like coming home again—greeting long-lost friends who we’ve taken for granted, or forgotten along the way.

And of course, there’s magic. Not only does Morwenna believe in fairies and speak to them often, but she knows that magic is real. Not necessarily in the grand, sweeping way that her favourite fantasy authors write about, but it exists and it’s to be respected and used carefully. This knowledge, along with the connection she eventually makes with other SF/F readers at the library, helps her through some of the roughest patches in real life—and, in the inevitable clashes with someone who knows magic is real too… and tries to use it against her (I’ll let you learn more about that for yourself, too).

One of my favourite moments in the novel comes after Morwenna’s life has been in danger, wherein she’d contemplated how easy it would be to just let go of this world and its troubles, and join someone she loves in the next. She comments that, “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.” No, it may not be normal to some people—but for readers and lovers of fantastic worlds, some days that’s all we have to hold onto.

Morwenna’s story is simple, but full of beautiful, poignant reflections on books, reading, and the reality of magic in the world around us, if only we’d look—really look—and learn to see it. Not only is the plot of her family’s magical intrigues utterly absorbing, but the intensity of her love for books is infectious, heartfelt, and infused with the kind of magic that we remember and can, just this once, experience again for the first time.

A love letter indeed.


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