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.

a reading meme

Found this wonderful meme over at Litlove’s and wanted to give it a whirl!

The Book I’m Reading

Jo Walton’s ‘Among Others’ – universally good reviews plus a 2011 Nebula followed by a 2012 Hugo clinched the deal. This was, however, a month ago. At the time that I started Among Others I also embarked upon Francis Lymond’s 10 year journey with Dorothy Dunnett little realizing that I would be dead to everything else till I finished the six part series. Of course, once I finished the series I was left gasping for breath and had to breathe in a lung-full of something sweet, something light. Once THAT was over with as well I could finally settle into Among Others.

Among Others is a fantasy unlike others in that the story’s not choc a bloc with fantastical creatures and other-worldly happenings. In fact now that I think of it the story’s touched more by an air of mystery than fantasy – the event that triggered Morganna’s current life situation are never fully revealed (Morganna is the 15 year old socially awkward bibliophile who narrates the story). Her mother is hinted at being literally evil but we do not really hear from her or of her other than Morganna’s oblique references. The secondary characters especially Wim and Morganna’s paternal relations, grandfather Sam and her father’s three sisters, all portend trouble – of things coming to a head in the second half of the novel where all these secondary characters are going to become important. And of course writing the above just made me realize that Miss Walton has definitely succeeded in imbuing her story with a certain atmosphere – a thick pall of rain and thunder and storm is what I would associate the story with. I’ll come back to this once I’m done with the whole novel.

The Last Book I Read

Pride & Prejudice – Ahh, I loved this re-reading so much. Sort of like soaking in the warmth of the sun after a particularly chilly night. The romance between Miss Elizabeth Bennett and Mr. Fitzwilliam Darcy was delightful. So too was the ridiculousness of the haughty Lady Catherine and the obsequious Mr. Collins. I appreciate the fact that while from my 21st century perspective I find these characters a tad unrealistic and tending to be a little caricature-like they probably have their grounding in the norms that were prevalent in the late 18th century and early 19th century. Of course each character could also be held up as a template of a certain type of individual that remains as true in the 21st century as it probably was in Miss Austen’s times – Mrs. Bennett and Lydia Bennett, the fluffy heads with nary a care except all that would be judged by the social barometer; Jane Bennett and Charles Bingley who seem naïve and too-good-to-be-true with the sweetness of their tempers and kindness of their dispositions; Mr. Bennett who seeks solace and amusement in his books and the absurdities of life as his coping mechanism for the choice he made in marrying Mrs. Bennett; and last but not the least Elizabeth and Darcy who in the surety of their opinions and in the blend of a certain selfishness and caring affection towards their family members and friends are perhaps the most easily relatable. I have to admit that I would not mind reading Pride & Prejudice in a proper classroom setting with a rigorous analysis of the novel as well as of the context in which Miss Austen wrote this much beloved work.

The Book I’ll Read Next

Ahh, all the contenders have been swept aside by the release of Karen Marie Moning’s next installment in the Fever world series – Iced.  I am a fan of Miss Moning’s packs-a-punch storytelling where half the world’s population is dead and the other half is busy cavorting ‘in the Faerie’. I came to the Fever series late which was odd considering that I was a big fan of her Highlander romances. However, once begun I could not put the books down – a heavy dose of paranormal elements crossed with alpha-male-hunkiness dunked in a world of non-whimpering females who can kick some major ass is as good a pleasure-read as it gets. Why these would not be the epitome of comfort-read is something that I might need to explore in another post; for the time being for a thoroughly enjoyable bout of pleasure reading I’d most certainly recommend the Fever series.

The Last Book I Bought

My last purchase was actually last night – Persuasion from the Kindle store since after re-reading Pride & Prejudice I want to go through all of Miss Austen’s works again.

The Last Book I Was Given

It’s been a while since I was given a book. I think the last one was a collection of poetry edited by Edward Hirsch. I love what I call ‘Poetry of the Everyday’ and I distinctly remember this collection featuring several of those kind… perhaps it’s time for a re-read. Speaking of poetry, I love the sort written by David Whyte, Billy Collins, Jane Hirschfield and Mary Oliver – they remind me of the joy and the poetry lurking in the interstices of life. And writing this brings the forceful realization that it’s been a really long while since I read any. I think one of my next purchases is going to be a book of poems!