It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.
Imagine a young adult fantasy epic in which a pair of Welsh twins fulfilled their destiny, rallied fairies, and fought a magical battle against their evil witch mother to save the world. Among Others is not that novel. Instead, it is about what happens after the world is saved, and the evil witch is defeated, and one of the twins is dead.
Among Others is a fictionalised retelling of the author’s early life. Like Mori in the book, Walton did grow up in the South Wales Valleys. Walton did need a walking stick to walk. Walton did lose a sister, who in reality, died after a drunk driver hit her. And Walton’s mother was not a witch, but suffered from paranoid schizophrenia.
The closest thing I can compare Among Others to is a Ghibli film like My Neighbor Totoro, Kiki’s Deliver Service, or Ponyo—a slow but gorgeous slice-of-life stroll through a world made up of rolling hills and valleys, idyllic small towns and villages, and kind people. Our protagonist, after defeating her mother and breaking her mother’s power, ran away from home and was placed in the care of her estranged English father by social services. She was then enrolled in a boarding school which, to Mori’s disappointment, is nothing like how they are depicted in the books. Among Others is a coming of age story about a teenage girl who loves to read—specifically sci-fi and fantasy—and about her finding her own people to belong to (or as Mori would put it using Vonnegut’s word, her “karass”). The teller of Mori’s story is fittingly, Mori herself, in the form of diary entries.
I can see why it won both the Nebula and the Hugo awards. It is a love letter to sci-fi and fantasy, and Mori name drops dozens of authors and titles (from Ursula K. Le Guin to Roger Zelazny) and shares what she thought of them throughout the book. She literally works Dune’s Litany Against Fear into the magical protections she put up against her mother’s attacks! How nerdy is that? It is also about a young person growing up in the company of books and little friends, and it is not portrayed as something sad but rather, something to be celebrated. As Jo Walton herself wrote in Among Others,
If you love books enough, books will love you back
I think all of us who grew up between the pages of books can identify how reading can set us apart but yet, we are okay with it. Proud even. That is why Mori felt real as a character because I know her thoughts and opinions came from a place of personal truth and lived experience, from Walton herself who doubtless had an identical childhood that led her to be a SFF author today. Mori is like an older, sassier Matilda who discovers the concept of “interlibrary loans”, declaring it to be “a wonder of the world” and “a glory of civilization”. And like Matilda, Mori is also seemingly capable of supernatural feats, and is able to see and converse with beings that she call “fairies”. Reading Among Others, one might wonder—is the magic real? Is this just how Mori copes? Was this how Walton herself coped? Walton herself didn’t help with how she built plausible deniability right into her magic system:
You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That’s because it doesn’t happen they way it does in the books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That’s what it is. It’s like you snapped a 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.
If you are thinking of picking this book up, I must warn you that it is a book that is in no hurry to go anywhere. For a book that is just 300 pages long, it felt like a book twice as thick. I do not think it is dull, but I can see why some readers might feel exasperated by its vague plot. Still, the last 10 pages really made the book for me. And if you are susceptible to book recommendations, you are in danger of putting a dozen more books in your to-read list thanks to Mori incessantly talking up books she reads.