Review: Among Others, Jo Walton

Why I read the end: The protagonist bought I Capture the Castle thinking it was a historical fiction book about an actual siege. I half wanted to make sure Mori found out the truth about the book, and half wanted Jo Walton to leave it alone as a sly nod to those of her readers who know about I Capture the Castle, and can see its influence on Among Others.

Among Others is all about a Welsh girl called Mori who has come to live with her father and his sisters after the death of her twin sister, Mor, and some unexplained nastiness with their mother. Mori can see fairies and work magic, and she is an avid reader; and, if you’re wondering, she’s #teammiddleearth. (I am and shall always be #teamnarnia.) Physically and mentally scarred by the events that killed her sister, Mori struggles to find a community in her new, strange surroundings.

Well, folks, it’s official. I never don’t want to read books about geeky British teenagers from the 1960s and 1970s and their emergent love for speculative fiction and the world of fandom. I thought this was the case after Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me, and I was confirmed in my opinion after that Dungeons and Dragons memoir, even as it made me writhe for the author, but now it’s three books (not to speak of interviews I have read of geeky authors who grew up in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s) and I am positive. It’s touching to read about these kids who feel terribly isolated and different, and who find these small windows into a world where people are like them and love the same things they love. Poor things, if only they had grown up a few decades later, in this generation of the geek fairly decisively inheriting the earth.

Jo Walton does something marvelous with the magic in Among Others, which is to make it invisible and give her characters, and her readers, absolute deniability. If you choose to read the book as a story where a girl finds magical explanations for her mentally ill mother, her isolation in her new home, and the loss of her sister, you could read it that way. Or you could choose to believe Mori, that her mother is a witch and she sees fairies and when she does magic, the universe rearranges itself very slightly. The book wants you to believe in magic, but it doesn’t demand that you do. It’s not something I’ve seen very often in fantasy fiction, and Walton carries it off brilliantly.

Altogether I cannot tell you what my final response was to this book. There were times when I capital-L loved it, and wanted to buy copies for everyone I knew. I am sort of in that headspace now that I have to return the book to the library. I want to read it again instead of returning it to the library, but the library demands to have it back. A big part of what makes this book interesting is Mori’s growing self-awareness, the way she finds a way to move past the tragedies in her past and become who she’s going to be without her sister. In an excellent passage, also quoted by the lovely Nymeth but I’m sure it would have stuck out to me anyway, Mori says (er, so, spoilers for Lord of the Rings ahead):

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.

That’s exactly what the book is. Also, I was right, no? She’s #teammiddleearth.

However, there were also times when I thought that certain plot points (mainly Mori’s guilt about magic) were being belabored unnecessarily. I was bothered by the way Mori, like so many bookish protagonists, often seemed to feel that the only worthwhile people were people who read a lot of books and valued her for her reading. I feel bad for complaining about that, because as I say, her self-awareness was an exceptionally good part of this book.

I recognize that finding things to define against is massively important when you’re a teenager becoming who you’re going to be. I might even go so far as to say it’s more important than finding things to define with, but of course I don’t know anything about adolescent psychological development. That said, I would have liked to see more hints from the author that she knew, even if Mori didn’t, that shared reading taste is not the only measure of value in new people.

On the other hand, my heart sang at some of Mori’s reading choices, most particularly Mary Renault’s lesser-known modern fiction. Any book in which the protagonist name-checks The Charioteer is a book that I shall not find it in my heart to condemn. (I say that now. Watch someone tell me that Cormac McCarthy’s characters are all tremendous Mary Renault fans, and then I’ll have to eat my words.) (Actually, that would make me more willing to give Cormac McCarthy a try, though not necessarily all the way willing.) And altogether, if I had bought this book instead of getting it from the library, I would not have felt my money had been wasted, and I would look forward to reading it again in years to come when I would catch more of the science fiction references.

People who also read it:

things mean a lot
Necromancy Never Pays
Stainless Steel Droppings

More? Surely? Am I just blind?

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39 thoughts on “Review: Among Others, Jo Walton

  1. Don’t you hate that when you have to return books to the library that you have loved and want to read again? I was forced to buy the whole Patrick Ness set because I got one from the library. On the other hand, it fills one with such joy to get a book from the library you really really wanted to read, only to find out you hate it!

    • I do, yes, yes, I do. I went to the library to return it today, and realized I hadn’t made notes of all the books I wanted to read from it. But by the time I realized that, the librarian already had it, and I was too embarrassed to beg for it back.

  2. This sounds like just the type of book that I need to read. I love the fact that believing in magic is totally optional, and though it sort of annoyed you, I like that the main character defines herself and those around her by what she and they read. Perhaps she is a bit of a book snob, which I can relate to (not that you’d be able to tell with what I’ve been posting lately). I think you should go out and buy this book for your permanent collection, if money permits. I loved this review and feel your thoughts on this book were quite interesting.

    • Money does not at present permit, but I’m definitely going to keep my eyes peeled. I am hoping I can maybe get it used at the Strand — in my mind I am imagining all the readers who like their fantasy more definitive, and selling their copies of Among Others to the Strand in a snit. And then I would buy one. So hopefully not everyone liked it as much as I did. :p

  3. Thanks, Jenny. Your review has moved this one higher up on my TBR list. I didn’t know there were so many literary references packed into “Among Others”, and hope that those references will have readers scurrying to read the books, particularly Mary Renault’s work!

    • Among Others is all literary references! She goes on at some length about some of them, too, which is very satisfying if you’ve read the books in question.

      And yes, fingers crossed for Mary Renault. The only reason I’ve read Mary Renault is that Watership Down includes a chapter epigraph from The King Must Die, and it intrigued my mother when she was a girl, and then she gave Mary Renault’s books to me when I was in high school (ish).

  4. I just tried my first Jo Walton (The King’s Peace) and I regret to report, it was outstandingly tedious – couldn’t make it thru the first hundred pages. But this sounds much better…I wouldn’t have wanted to judge Mary Renault on the basis of The Charioteer. 😛 Kidding! (But not really.)

    • Don’t worry, Mumsy! I didn’t like the King’s Peace or the next in that series, Jo Walton isn’t normally that tedious. It’s like she remakes herself into a totally different writer every time she sets a book in a new world. I can’t speak for this one since I haven’t read it yet, but I totally agreed with your daughter’s glowing reviews of Ha’penny and Farthing.

    • Trapunto is correct, as she so often is. I loved Jo Walton’s Fascists trilogy, but I wasn’t crazy about her dragons book, and then this was a mixed bag that came out on the positive side. So make of that what you will.

  5. I really want to read this! I am going to buy it in March, I think. I could just ask the library to buy it but I am hopeful I will enjoy it enough that I will want to own it.

    In the meantime, I should read I Capture the Castle which has been on my TBR pile for a scary long time!

    I only sort of glanced at your review because I don’t want to ruin anything for me. 🙂

    • Oh, you should read I Capture the Castle. Do this: Pick it up one evening, and read one chapter. Then you won’t be committing to reading the whole thing, just one chapter, to see.

      (This is crafty because I am confident you will be sucked in and read the whole thing.)

  6. I don’t like returning books to the library that I love either. Depending on how deep the love is, I sometimes buy a copy. As for Cormac McCarthy, be forewarned that he doesn’t use quotation marks. It’s annoying and even though I got used to it, I didn’t like it. I hated it actually. Really, really hated it. I don’t know why he just can’t use punctuation like everyone else!

    • I know he doesn’t. He refers to them as weird little marks cluttering up the page. That’s one of many, many reasons (well, like two reasons) I haven’t read Cormac McCarthy.

  7. I enjoyed this review, thanks for writing it! The only book I can think of with absolute deniability is one I read recently, The Little Stranger, and I wasn’t so sure about that, since it’s absoluteness depended on mental illness in *two* characters (or mental illness in one, criminal insanity in the other, depending on your sympathies) which seemed a bit of a stretch.

    Oh, now I’m thinking of another one, also with criminal insanity being a condition of deniability.

    And another. I Kill Giants, which I didn’t love precisely for deniability and mental health angle; it cheapened the epic nature of the story for me. So, is Mori supposed to be possibly crazy?

    • Yeah, I’m not sure The Little Stranger counts as deniability, but I do like it that Sarah Waters goes with a light touch. Oh, hey, what about The Haunting of Hill House? I think that maintains a fairly high degree of deniability.

      Among Others doesn’t say that Mori’s possibly crazy, but the reader could put a lot down to grief over her sister’s death.

      That is a good point about I Kill Giants. I didn’t love it either, and that may be why — it built up, and built up, and built up, and the resolution didn’t satisfy me.

      • The Snow Child, a recent book by Eowyn Ivey, also has plausible deniability in a wonderfully deft balancing of fairy tale and realism. I loved it. Loved Among Others, too, and will now read the Fascists trilogy, sonce you say it’s even better. Jenny, you are my failsafe for reading suggestions.

    • I KNOW YOU ARE! I thought of you when I was writing that about Mori. :p

      Be prepared for Walton’s other books to be totally different, though. Also for the Fascists trilogy to be quite quite gripping and maybe causing you to read it faster than you may presently be intending.

  8. I kinda want to read-would I like it? And I like #teammiddleearth although deep in my heart I am and always will be #teamnarnia The nice thing about those teams is that they don’t have to conflict.

    • They mostly don’t have to conflict. But sometimes Tolkien fans get all, like, oh, CS Lewis’s world isn’t cohesive, and Tolkien is better. And when that shit goes down, I’m on #teamnarnia.

      • yeah, when that happens inside my head goes slightly berserk, and i have to leave conversations quickly to avoid exploding at whoeever has insulted narnia. It’s how you can tell where my true loyalties lie: I don’t go nuts for insults to middle earth.

        So: would I like this book?

  9. Can I be #teammidnarniearth? Except in my heart I know I’m #teammiddlearth.

    Also, I think I want to read this, except I’m afraid of all the books it’ll add to my TBR ;P

    • I’m #teamnarnia to my heart, but I didn’t read Lord of the Rings until I was in high school, and I read the Chronicles of Narnia when I was three. The results were predictable.

      I returned it too hastily to the library without writing down all the books I wanted to write down. I am a bit mad at myself for doing that. Fortunately, most of them were books I’ve heard of before, like Tiptree and Silverberg’s stuff. All I have to do is remember the authors and I can figure out books from there.

  10. “Jo Walton does something marvelous with the magic in Among Others, which is to make it invisible and give her characters, and her readers, absolute deniability.”

    I really loved that sentence, and the rest of that paragraph in your review. What a really interesting trick the author was able to pull off — makes me want to read the book!

  11. As a person who grew up in the 70s reading all the speculative fiction mentioned in this book except for Zenna Henderson (which I straightaway ordered), and a member of #teammiddleearth all my life, I loved this book and your review for telling me that what seemed so strange to people back then is much more mainstream today. That’s got to be a good thing.

    • Hey! Yeah! Zenna Henderson! Thanks for reminding me about her. She was one of the authors I wanted to try, but I would have forgotten her instantly because I’d never heard of her before. Handy.

      I think it’s a good thing, but then, I’m a geeky girl.

  12. I had forgotten that Suzy, Led Zeppelin, and Me was about growing up in that time period! Now I’m even more excited about finally reading it, whenever that happens 😛

    It’s been over a month and I’m still thinking about this book. I struggled a little bit with how much I should trust Mori at times, but not necessarily in a bad way. For example – spoilers ahead – I still haven’t decided if Wim was supposed to be entirely sympathetic or sometimes a little creepy or possibly even both. Are we, as readers, expected to share Mori’s eagerness to see him vindicated, or IS something a tiny little bit off? In any case, maybe the story leaving this uncertain isn’t a bad thing.

    • I didn’t think Wim was supposed to be entirely sympathetic. I thought he was supposed to be in between: not as awful as his peers thought he was, but not as fantastic as Mori thought he was. But not so much because Mori’s an unreliable narrator, as because she’s young and dumb, and I am old and wise. :p

      • yeah, I thought part of the point of Wim as a character is that the situation puts you, as the reader, in the shoes of the narrator a little bit: you’re young, you like his looks, he seems nice, but should you trust how you feel? And I like it that it’s never entirely resolved.

  13. I was not aware that there was a battle between #teammiddleearth and #teamnarnia though I would decisively come down on the Narnian side of things, as I never could love Tolkein the way I thought I should.

    My mother was always that kid growing up in the US with a love of speculative fiction decades before its time. I think that’s a big part of why I read so much; I inherited her books.

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