Tuesday, January 10, 2017

Among Others by Jo Walton

After I'd read The Just City, I thought I'd look up some other books by Jo Walton. Among Others is a stand-alone novel that won several awards a few years ago, so it seemed like a good place to start.
The book is set in Great Britain around 1980. It follows about a year in the life of Mor, a girl raised in Wales who is now going to school in England, after running away from her mother and being sent to stay with her father. She's partially crippled from the same accident that killed her twin sister and the smartest in her class in everything but math, in addition to being an outsider - not a good formula for fitting in at a new school. On top of that, Mor also can see fairies and do magic, unlike almost everyone else around her.

The magic in Among Others isn't flashy or ritualized. Mor isn't throwing fireballs around or creating enchanted swords. She mostly follows the advice of the fairies at first, but over time learns to do things on her own. Magic is a matter of taking specific small actions - scattering leaves at a particular time and place, carrying certain sticks and stones, even acupuncture. The results change the world, but not in any way that's obviously connected to the original actions. Mor mostly avoids using magic except defensively, in fear of unexpected consequences.

She needs that magical defense against her mother, who uses magic liberally and is constantly chasing more power. Her daughters have stopped her before, which caused the accident that killed one and crippled the other. Mor's aunts try to control her as well. A good amount of Mor's energy is spent simply trying to avoid being caught in the machinations of her relatives.

The entire book is written from Mor's viewpoint, as entries in a journal. It works well to give the reader a deep understanding of Mor's character, and how she grows and changes over time. However, the single viewpoint also made me wonder how the story might have sounded from another perspective - say, her mother. Perhaps things wouldn't be quite as black-and-white as they appear.

A major coping mechanism for Mor is reading science fiction and fantasy novels. There are references to all kinds of books from The Lord of the Rings to the Pern series to Zelazny's Amber series, and many more besides. I've read probably two-thirds of the books mentioned, so there was a good amount of nostalgic impact. When I ran across a reference that I didn't know, I felt a bit of a loss of connection to the story and Mor's character. I suspect that anyone who hasn't read a lot of pre-1980 SF/F will find it hard to be immersed in Among Others, due to wondering about the constant unfamiliar references.

There's not really a lot going on in Among Others in terms of plot. "Girl goes to unfamiliar school, grows up a bit, settles some personal demons" is a fair summary, but of course that's not the point of the book. Don't expect to see much in the way of action, mundane or magical. Mor's growth and how she copes with changes in her life drives the story.

I enjoyed reading Among Others, though I'm not sure how much of that was due to the story itself and how much was about nostalgia from all the book references. Either way, I'm happy to have had the chance.

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