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?

Review: Still Life with Fascists trilogy, Jo Walton

Britain didn’t declare war on Germany. Instead they made peace, and Britain slid gradually into fascism. One might call the trilogy the Small Change trilogy instead, as the books are called Farthing, Ha’Penny, and Half a Crown, but I like the Still Life with Fascists title better. Each book has two narrators, one the first-person narration of a young upper-class English woman, and one the third-person narration of a morally compromised policeman called Carmichael. Don’t you love a morally compromised narrator?

The first book, Farthing, is a country house murder mystery. The so-called “Farthing set”, famed for their integral role in negotiating peace between Germany and Britain, is all together for the weekend when one of their number, high-ranking minister James Thirkie, is found dead in his bedroom. When Carmichael, the not-yet-morally-compromised-but-oh-he-will-be police inspector man, comes to investigate, he finds that suspicion is being cast upon David Kahn, the Jewish husband of Lucy Kahn (our upper-class English woman first person narrator). I loved the hell out of Farthing. I loved Carmichael and I loved Lucy and I loved the plot. Plus, Lucy? She refers to people as Athenian (which means gay), Macedonian (which means bi), and Roman (which means straight). When I discovered that she was not featured in the second book, I almost cried.

Briefly. Then I began reading Ha’Penny and found that it was interesting in its own right. In it, actress Viola Lark, one of the famous/notorious Larkin sisters (“the one who acts”) (yes, these are fictionalized Mitfords), becomes involved almost accidentally with a plot to assassinate Hitler and the Prime Minister of Britain. I won’t tell you how this works out, but I will say that Carmichael? Does not respond in a way that makes him feel good about being him. Because he’s morally compromised, yo. Morally compromised protagonists are never happy with anything they do, which is why I like them so much.

And then there was Half a Crown. Which I loved all the way through until about twenty pages from the end. I mean it’s just so grim. It’s set in 1960, and fascism has become deeply entrenched in Britain, to the point that our narrator, Elvira Royston, calls it “such fun” and eagerly attends fascist rallies. The environment in Britain is shocking to read about, because it’s so far removed from what Britain is really like, and because it’s easy to imagine it being that way if history had gone differently. This is how the best alternate history works, though, right? Moral compromising abounds! I couldn’t put the book down because everything seemed to be going all to hell, and I couldn’t imagine how things were ever going to work out. Apparently Jo Walton couldn’t either. It was a total deus ex machina ending, and it made me sad because the books deserved better.

But never mind. I will just pretend that everything ended after Elvira [REDACTED FOR SPOILER-FREE SEPTEMBER], leaving the reader to contemplate the probable collapse of Britain and ruin of every character we cared about. Because that, depressing though it would be, at least would be an ending that paid out the darkness of the rest of the books.

Oh, dear, I sound terribly grumpy. I swear, these books are worth it, even with the bad ending. The writing is wonderful, the premise feels frighteningly realistic, and the characters are a joy to read about. Just go into it with the awareness that the ending will not satisfy, and resign yourself early on to that reality, and then perhaps you will not be disappointed, as I was. Many thanks to Memory for recommending these books. I loved them! I can’t wait to read Walton’s earlier series, as well as Tooth and Claw!