Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Among Others by Jo Walton

Among Others is a fantasy novel.

That's not a categorization; it's an assertion. The novel itself could be read as the diary of an emotionally disturbed young woman, who retreated to the fabulization of her own life to deal with a nearly unbearable trauma and whose voice the reader must mistrust from the ground up. But that's a false reading -- I insist that the faeries in Among Others are real, in all their numinousness and slipperiness, and that what Mori tells us is true, as far as she can tell it. I believe.

Among Others throws out another caltrop for the unwary reader: it's a fantasy novel that's in large part about science fiction, about the joy of reading SF books, discovering SF communities, and arguing in the ways that only SFnal people do. But its own story cannot be argued in those terms; its fairies cannot be proven or disproven by logic and close reading. This is a fantasy novel: one must accept Mori when she tells us about her life and her secret knowledge, and we must believe her. We must believe her. No one else could tell us these things.

Who is Mori? Morwenna Phelps is a plain teenage girl, with a leg and hip damaged by the same hurtling car that killed her twin sister Morganna. Mori is a girl who claims her mother is an evil witch scheming for magical power in nearly indescribable ways. Mori is a Welsh girl who sees fairies and does magic -- which doesn't work the way you think it would. Mori is a girl now in the care of her father, Daniel Markova -- separated from her mother for several years -- and on her way to the moderately posh girls' boarding school Arlinghurst, because that father has no idea what to do with her. Mori is a girl who loves science fiction books with a hunger that radiates off the page, the need of a smart young woman for stories that explain the secrets of this world and all of the others.

And she tells this story, in her own words, as she writes it down in a diary over the course of the 1979-1980 academic year. She views her fellow boarding-school students as if they were an alien race she has to comprehend, with their intra-house sports contests and elaborate points systems and not-quite-homoerotic close friendships. She casts a spell to find friends, and struggles with the idea of magic entirely -- because her mother is still out there, and still seeking to bend Mori to her will through her own magic. She finds her way into the local town, which has a tea shop (source of honey buns, sent to complicated nets of friends to mark  in-group status at Arlinghurst), and a bookshop, and a library -- and, most of all, eventually, some people Mori can talk to. But what Mori does most of all is read -- Le Guin and Delaney, Cherryh and Tiptree, Silverberg and Brunner (and some non-SF as well, in amongst the others) -- and think about what she read, and plan to go look for more books, and make lists of things she wants to read, and wonder what other books might be out there.

It's not a convoluted plot, or one with lots of action -- though Walton expertly works Mori's voice, telling the reader exactly what's important at any moment but never telling the whole story of anything at once. But plenty of things do happen -- and not just in Mori's head. (Though that's where all of the most interesting things are happening.)

In some other, equally as fictional or real 1979, a teenage boy in Cleveland is voraciously reading Chandler and Hammett, Ross Macdonald and Ian Fleming. And a girl in Perth is discovering Rosemary Sutcliff and Gillian Bradshaw. And a boy in Cape Town is excited by Edward Albee and Tom Stoppard. Among Others is the specific story of Mor and her life, of science fiction and its wonders and communities, but it's also the story of a million bookish young people, who latched onto SF or fantasy or gothics or historicals or sea stories or plays or even YA problem novels -- who latched onto books and the stories they tell as a gateway out of their individual lives and, eventually, used those books to light their way out into the worlds they really wanted to live in. It might be your story. It's my story in many ways. And Jo Walton tells that story superbly, magnificently, amazingly, through Mori Phelps, who is and isn't Jo Walton in the way that only fiction, only fantasy can manage.

I can't recommend this book highly enough to anyone who was ever that misfit kid, reading incessantly to get away from the world that didn't make sense into worlds that did. And I can't describe Among Others' virtues better than Steven Brust does on the back cover:
Amazing. The timing of revelation is perfect and the first-person narrative is flawless. As Mori shuttles between her family's magical intrigues and the transformative books she reads, her story becomes so real that it hurts. In a good way.
Among Others is a great fantasy novel, a great novel, a great love letter to the power of books and science fiction, and a great picture of a young person so many of us were like, in our own ways. And I believe in fairies because Mori tells us they're real.

1 comment:

dd-b said...

Yes, that's the book I read.

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