Among Others by Jo Walton – A Review

Among OthersAmong Others was a bit of a disappointment. In all honesty the disappointment probably stems from my notions of what a sci-fi / fantasy novel should be like. (And I am confused whether Among Others is a sci-fi story or a fantasy). Devoid of mindbending magic and fantastical creatures and the grand battles between good and evil Among Others is a pean to the sci-fi genre.

Morwenna, the 15 year old zealous sci-fi lover whose diary entries we read has just lost her twin. She has also run away from her evil witch of a mother who was responsible for her twin’s death. She is meeting her father for the first time and is settling down somewhat uncomfortably ‘among others’ – amongst a group of sports-loving, girly-girls who are as different from her as can be.

As an ode to books and the power they wield and as a revelation of a book lover’s somewhat tempestuous relationship with books they adore Among Others excels. I was sucked in by the intensity and the passion with which Morwenna discusses books. While the focus on sci-fi meant I had not read 90% of the books being talked about the minutiae of being a reader – of being held in grip by a book, of discovering one that forces you to reconsider your long-held cherished notions, of the fact that there are books that change one’s life and the eventual discovery that you aren’t the only one whose life has been changed, of there being “some awful things in the world, it’s true, but there are also some great books” – was all eminently relatable.

It’s just that I found myself disappointed with the overall plot.

The breathless quality of Morwenna’s narration set me up to expect unspeakable revelations being disclosed in the very next breath; however, the entirety of the the accident that led to the twin’s death, Morwenna’s mother’s role in all of it and the grand face-off between good and evil was over before I was aware of it. Again, I want to repeat that there’s nothing wrong with this by itself – it’s just that I was caught completely unawares.

Among Others depicts magic as something that could be construed as happenstance – no fire-breathing dragons and faery realms here. Miss Walton also touches on predestination vs free will. If there is such a thing as magic then who is to say that your reading of these words was not so much your choice as perhaps a circumstance already ordained to happen because of magic meddling in somewhere along the chain of events? Overall, I found the description of magic whimsical and refreshing:

Grampar’s chair resented anyone else sitting on it as much as he did himself. Gramma’s shirts and jumpers adjusted themselves to hide her missing breast. My mother’s  shoes positively vibrated with consciousness. Our toys looked out for us.

The element of magic is secondary to the story. The focus is on Morwenna coming into her own. That she can wield magic is incidental. Her identity is defined more by the books she reads than her ability to do something rare and secretive like magic. And yet it is this very aspect of Among Others which makes me question the necessity of magic in the story in the first place. The coming-of-age story could have been told with no introduction of magic in the first place. Its presence seems superfluous to the overall story. Then again, perhaps that is Miss Walton’s message – that our identity need not be defined by the presence of a superhuman ability (or the lack of it); rather it’s a conscious decision that we must make each moment through our choices.

There are also some lovely insights tucked into the folds of Among Others:

Class is like magic. There’s nothing there you can point to, it evaporates if you try to analyse it, but it’s real and it affects how people behave and makes things happen.

and

I hate it when people imply that people only read because they have nothing better to do.

and

If you love books enough, books will love you back.

Book lovers out there, I certainly recommend this for a one-time read. Fantasy lovers out there, put away your expectations in a little box and then come to Among Others.

That’s what I’m thinking. I’d love to know *your* thoughts!

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