I’ve lately been feeling that I’ve been neglecting my aspiring writer duty to keep reading. (The most common bit of advice that most professional writers will give aspiring ones boils down to “read, read, read.”) Among Others won the Nebula Award for best novel of 2011, so it seemed like a good choice to pick up.
Jo Walton is one of a number of names I’ve known for a while as “someone I should read” but haven’t. She’s done two previous novels that I remember having a specific interest in: Farthing, a mystery novel set in an alternate 1949, eight years after Britain brokered a piece with Nazi Germany that gave them Europe; and Tooth and Claw, a Victorian novel with all the appropriate trappings of inheritances, difficult romances and stuffy class striation—with the not-so-minor difference that all the characters are dragons.
Among Others is more conventional on the surface, albeit only by comparison. Morwenna, the story’s protagonist, is a teenager growing up in Wales in the ’70s. She’s estranged from both her parents—a distant father and an abusive mother—and her twin sister was killed in an automobile accident that left Mor permanently walking with a cane. As the story starts, she’s starting at a boarding school in England.
And Mor sees—and sometimes talks with—fairies. She performs sympathetic magic with them. And her mother is an evil magician; her sister actually died in a magic battle between the two girls and their mother.
…Maybe. The story is told as a series of diary entries from Mor, and little if any of the magic in the story is of the sort that couldn’t be ascribed to the imagination of a precocious teenage girl who voraciously reads fantasy and science fiction and has good reason to be spending time in her own world. She’s an unreliable narrator, but not in the negative sense the term is often used. Mor is likable and immediately relatable to anyone else who was, well, a teenager who voraciously read fantasy and science fiction.
Mor’s character arc is essentially driven by her discovery of other sf/fantasy fans: her father turns out to be one, the librarian she meets encourages her to find more books, and eventually she gets into a sf reading group and meets a potential boyfriend. Meanwhile, Mor worries that her mother is still out to destroy her magically—there are several points where she’s positive that a spell is being worked on her, culminating in a confrontation at the end.
Well, maybe culminating isn’t the right word. Symbolically, you can read it as Mor conquering her fears of the past, facing and rejecting a last temptation to be consumed by it, and in that light it not only happens at the right point, it has to happen at that point. But in the actual surface plot…it just happens. This isn’t an isolated example of this “a day happened, and then another day did” feeling I got throughout the novel. Some girls hate Mor, then eventually don’t. Mor’s injured hip hurts more, then it hurts less. An extremely disturbing scene with her otherwise likable father is put back on the mantelpiece and never really spoken of again. As one of the reviewers on Amazon quipped, “It starts very slowly, and continues that way for the whole book.”
It’s awfully hard not to read Mor as a stand-in for her Welsh author, who would have been discovering the same science fiction books at about the same age as Mor did. At its heart, Among Others is a love letter to science fiction. The diary structure lets Walton not merely mention dozens of authors and books but encapsulate little reviews of them as Mor thrills to Roger Zelazny and Samuel Delany, complains about Stephen Donaldson being compared by his publisher to Tolkien, and is shocked to learn that James Tiptree, Jr., was a woman. Mor writes something to the effect of, “Robert Silverberg must have egg on his face,” which will have readers who know what she’s referring to smiling: Silverberg wrote once that he found the notion that Tiptree was a woman “absurd, for there is to me something ineluctably masculine about Tiptree’s writing.”
Unfortunately, it’s also awfully hard not to suspect that this is the main reason Among Others won the Nebula this year. The Nebula is given away by the Science Fiction Writers of America, an organization whose members are statistically much more likely than others to get that “egg on his face” reference without having it explained to them. If you make your living writing science fiction, this novel is a love letter to you. If you’re under thirty you may spend a lot of the book wondering who the hell these people are. (Granted, if you like science fiction and don’t know these names, you should probably learn.)
It’s beautifully written, with lyrical passages that still remain true to Mor’s voice and well-drawn and complex characters, and if the idea of this kind of slice-of-life story appeals to you—and it very well might—this one is executed brilliantly. (Or, as Mor would put it, “it’s quite brill.”) But at its heart, the story here is fairly slim. I enjoyed Among Others, but I wish I’d started with one of Walton’s other novels.
(Originally published at Coyote Prints)