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Jo Walton – Among Others

July 21, 2014

56. Among Others by Jo Walton (2011)

Length: 304 pages
Genre: Fantasy

Started: 29 June 2014
Finished: 01 July 2014

Where did it come from? Christmas present (from Santa!)
Why do I have it? It’s been on my wishlist since I first saw it on Shelf Awareness, probably about the time I read Tooth and Claw.
How long has it been on my TBR pile? Since 25 December 2013.

Escaping into
books won’t help you put off the
real world forever.

Summary: Morwenna (Mori) Phelps grew up with a twin sister and a mother who was more than half mad, and dabbled in magic. Mori and her sister knew a little about magic as well; they could see and sometimes talk to fairies that hid in the ruins and wild places in the Welsh valleys they called home. But then Mori’s sister died in an accident – an accident that left Mori with a crippled leg, an accident that Mori is sure was caused by their mother’s magical machinations. Now she’s being sent to live with her father, who left when they were little – or more accurately, she’s being sent to an English boarding school by her father’s family. Mori must now learn to adapt to this strange new world, almost devoid of magic, and without her twin sister by her side. Her only comfort is in the fantasy and science fiction books she loves, but how well do those translate into growing up in the real world?

Review: I loved this book, which was completely expected on some levels, and very surprising on others. I knew going in that it was about a girl who relates more to books than to other people, and I think there’s something in Mori that pretty much every bookworm will recognize. And the books to which she relates are SF/F, my own genre of choice, so that made it all the better. My knowledge of “classic” (read: 1970s) SF/F is shamefully slim, so while I recognized almost all of the authors and most of the titles Mori’s reading, I’d read very few of them myself. But it turns out that didn’t matter so much. Would I have gotten a deeper understanding of this book if I could have mentally compared notes about other books with Mori? Sure, of course. But simultaneously, I felt as though a lot of the point was about how Mori relates to and processes her world through the books she’s reading, and which specific books they were somehow become secondary. (Plus, having not read most of the books just gives me suggestions for what to read next. I’ve already knocked Dragonflight off the list!)

I also knew going in that it involved fairies, and magic, which was another thing that I like. I love reading stories with different perspective on how magic works, how Faerie works, how it relates to us and the land. And I loved Mori’s answers to those questions. As I read, I definitely found myself thinking: “Yes, if there is magic, this would be how it works.”

I thought, sitting there, that everything is magic. Using things connects them to you, being in the world connects you to the world, the sun streams down magic and people and animals and plants grow from sunlight and the world turns and everything is magic. Fairies are more in the magic than in the world, and people are more in the world than in the magic. Maybe fairies, the ones that aren’t lost dead people, are concentrations, personifications, of the magic? And God? God is in everything, moving through everything, is the pattern that everything makes, moving. That’s why messing with magic so often becomes evil, because it’s going against that pattern, moving. –p. 294

But as much as I liked the approach that Walton takes to magic, simultaneously I loved that the whole thing contains an element of plausible deniability, so that as the story moves along, you’re never *quite* sure if the magic is real or coincidence, if Mori really can see the fairies or if she’s slightly mad as well, or even if those things are really dichotomies or are both true.

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. –p. 40

So those were the things that I was expecting to love. There were also some surprises that I wasn’t expecting, that I loved anyways. I didn’t realize going in that this was (in part) a boarding school story, and those are always a favorite. I also didn’t know that it was an epistolary novel (in the form of Mori’s diary), so that was also a pleasant surprise. Walton handles the style really well, with Mori leaving some things vague, focusing on certain things and glossing over others, and not explaining details that would have been too obvious for her to bother recording in her diary. The control of the information flow is really well done, in short, allowing us to piece together what’s going on and the details of what’s past, without breaking Mori’s voice or infodumping. (This book also encouraged me to pick up my paper journal again, for which I’m quite grateful – I’d missed it.) I was also pleasantly surprised to find this book funny – not constantly, Mori’s in too much pain for that, but there was the occasional bit that made me grin, even despite some of the deeper insights and more somber elements of the story.

(I do not miss my toys. I wouldn’t play with them anyway. I am fifteen. I miss my *childhood*.) Jr. was a plastic boy on a motorbike, one of our few human male toys. His name came from Ward Moore’s “Lot.” I thought it daring and American to have an odd name like that with no vowels. We pronounced it Jirr. I was mortified for whole minutes when I found out what it really meant. –p. 160

So all of that’s great. The thing that surprised me about how much I liked this book, is that I liked it despite the fact that not a lot happens. The plot of the book is probably best summarized thusly: Mori learns to cope with life on her own. So, she reads a lot, and meets new people and learns slowly how to relate to them instead of to books, and she thinks about magic a fair bit, but that’s kind of it. Even the eventual confrontation with her mother didn’t seem that dramatic, because it’s not really the focus of the story. And as much as that kind of thing might ordinarily annoy me, in this case, I didn’t mind at all, because I was so wrapped up in Mori’s world and Mori’s head that I was content just following her on her daily life. And the thing is, you do come out the other side feeling like things have happened, that Mori has changed – it just happened so quietly that you didn’t always notice it was happening. Which, like the magic, is how it works in the real world anyways. 4.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Definitely recommended for those who ever felt like they didn’t fit in or couldn’t deal with those around them and so escaped into books. Bonus points if those books were SF/F, or if you’re looking for a little bit of magic intruding on the real world.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Jenny’s Books, The Literary Omnivore, The Little Red Reviewer, Page247, Stella Matutina, Things Mean a Lot and more at the Book Blogs Search Engine.
Have you reviewed this book? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.

Vocab: (see the whole list)

  • p. 21: “I let them buy hockey shoes and running shoes and daps, for gym, because either I can use them or not.” – a type of athletic shoe with a canvas upper and rubber sole
    .
  • p. 65: “It’s a granfalloon in the purest sense, and I am enduringly grateful to Vonnegut for giving me the word.” – a group of people who outwardly choose or claim to have a shared identity or purpose, but whose mutual association is actually meaningless
    .
  • p. 66: “There are other people like me out there. There is a karass. I know there is, there can be.” – A group of people linked in a cosmically significant manner, even when superficial linkages are not evident.
    .
  • p. 73: “Sharon got to leave this morning, lucky pup, because another thing Jews can’t do is travel on Friday nights or Saturdays. What happens if they do? It’s like having a pile of geasas.” – an idiosyncratic taboo, whether of obligation or prohibition, similar to being under a vow or spell.
    .
  • p. 149: “He’d have taken up his crozier, well, he doesn’t have a crozier, he isn’t a bishop, maybe he’d have snatched up the churchwardern’s staff and gone out to cast demons out of her.” – a ceremonial staff carried by a bishop or an abbot, hooked at one end like a shepherd’s crook
    .
  • p. 194: “I’ve collected another four pounds fifty in clenigs, and six chocolate coins.” – coins given as New Year’s gifts.
    .
  • p. 202: “There was no ice cream van in the layby, and Auntie Teg remarked on this as if she really thought there would be.” – A paved area beside a main road where cars can stop temporarily.
    .
  • p. 284: ““Well, it is February. Hardly grockle season,” Daniel said.” – a tourist, esp one from the Midlands or the North of England
    .

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11 Comments leave one →
  1. July 21, 2014 4:40 pm

    I so need to read this!

    • July 25, 2014 6:52 pm

      Sam – Indeed! I waited a long time, and I’m not sure why.

  2. July 22, 2014 4:39 pm

    So pleased you loved this. Some enterprising person made a big list of all the books Mori mentions over the course of the novel, which I basically just added wholesale to my TBR list. Did you notice she mentions Mary Renault? My imaginary girlfriend Mary Renault?

    • July 25, 2014 6:54 pm

      Jenny – Hahaha, I was thinking about it – wondering if there was an LT catalog started for Mori. I probably shouldn’t go near that list, since my wishlist is long enough as it is. (And I did notice the mention of Mary Renault – she was one of the books I was familiar with!)

  3. July 23, 2014 7:36 pm

    I actually might like this. Your list of what you like about it has me intrigued. Of course, bookworm characters are usually a draw. I might even have it on my tbr already.

    • July 25, 2014 6:56 pm

      Care – It’s a quiet, lovely little book, and it’s hard to imagine anyone who cares enough about books to be reading (or writing) a book blog *wouldn’t* love it.

  4. July 24, 2014 11:50 pm

    And it’s the kind of book that makes you want to read lots and lots of other books. It’s dangerous. ;)

    • July 25, 2014 6:56 pm

      Grace – I know! I consider myself a pretty big SFF fan but this book made me realize how many of the classics I’m missing.

  5. July 27, 2014 9:06 pm

    I was browsing in Black and Read, a little independent bookstore, the other day, and I was picking over the speculative fiction section. It was full of used books and I immediately flashed back to this novel, thinking of how Mor had to find out what her favorite authors wrote from the scant bibliographies included in her copies.

    What a fantastic book this is.

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