Saturday, July 7, 2012

REVIEW: Among Others by Jo Walton

Rating: 4/5 Stars
Genre: (Really light) Fantasy, Coming-of-age
Audience: Adult/Young Adult Crossover

Summary: Fantasy and a realistic coming-of-age story merge in this tale of a young outcast who finds meaning in the books she loves. When a magical battle with her insane mother leaves Mori crippled and results in her twin's death, Mori flees to her heretofore absent father in England. Once there, Mori is quickly shuffled off to a boarding school that is a far cry from the fairy-filled valleys of Wales. There 15-year-old Mori struggles to find friends and dabbles in a bit of magic on her own before the inevitable showdown with her mother.

First Lines: "The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.... My sister and I called it Mordor..."

Tracy's Thoughts:
On the surface, this sounds like a typical genre novel: outsider teenager discovers magical powers, etc, etc. And yet in Among Others, much of the "action" takes place offstage before the novel begins. Instead, the focus is on Mori's struggle to find a place and a purpose after losing her sister. Her innermost thoughts and fears on everything from getting breasts to the latest Zelazny novel are related through a series of diary entries. The fantasy elements are very much in the background, but bits of magic slip though the cracks. Mori sees fairies that look more like plants than the sparkly winged creatures of lore, and her magic doesn't work like the magic in her beloved books, though she sometimes wishes it did. Instead of grand, sweeping magic, the magic here is ambiguous and inextricably part of the "real" world. It is something that must be taken on faith:
You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn’t mean the reason you have the rose in your hand isn’t because you did the magic.
I love this concept. Mori's belief in magic of this sort makes so much sense even as I questioned whether Mori's stories are merely the product of her book-fueled imagination.

In many ways, Among Others it is a love letter to libraries and to books, particularly the science fiction novels of the 1970s. And although I am not a big reader of sci-fi or fantasy, I have a special love for books about books and those who read them. (Case in point: this excellent book, and this book that *might* qualify as my absolute favorite read of 2011.)  Mori's enthusiasm for the books of Ursula Le Guin and other giants of the sci-fi/fantasy genres made me want to hole up for a week (or two) just so I can devour all of the classics she loves. (Lucky for me, Jo Walton has Mori's reading list posted on her blog.) Among Others is a wonderful book, with a fascinating and engaging lead character, simple yet elegant writing, and thought-provoking ideas. I recommend it for anyone who has been an outsider, for anyone who has lost someone they loved, and most of all for anyone who loves books even a tenth as much as Mori does.

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