Among Others – notes on a book, with updates Nov 2012

Jo Walton’s newest book, Among Others, was published last week. There are lots of good and useful positive reviews of it on line, like this one from Locus.

Mostly I don’t write book reviews, because I don’t feel sufficiently competent and because it seems unfair that half the books I want to recommend are books by people I know. Oddly, I have no problem writing about television or movies from a casual viewer’s perspective. Despite all those disclaimers — and the additional one that I actually got to read an earlier version of this manuscript a couple of years ago — I want to tell you that I really liked Among Others, and to tell you a bit more about it because you might like it too.

Among Others is a real-world-with-magic book, a boarding-school story, a trauma-survivor story, a story told through the protagonist’s diary, and a story about someone who reads and how the books she reads inform her life. I like all those subgenres of books. So it is not at all surprising that I loved Among Others when I first read it, and that I have enjoyed both rereads so far and laughed out loud and cried in the bath.

The magic in the world of Among Others is subtle. It’s subtle enough that a reader inclined to look for mundane and psychological explanations could often grasp at them. But it is not trivial or consequence-free, for the user or for other people. This would explain why most people don’t seem to know about magic — because sane people who can use it rarely do.

I like boarding-school stories in general, although my favourites are the introvert-outsider stories of Madeleine L’Engle’s And Both Were Young, Kit Pearson’s The Daring Game, and some Australian story in a Virago Press edition, rather than Malory Towers, Chalet School, Chrestomanci, or Hogwarts. The solitary protagonist of Among Others has all the troubles you might expect when an awkward outsider arrives partway through the term, but she has such a strong sense of self (and a safe place to write about it, see below) that she never seems to be consumed by the petty social troubles and bullying that she endures. This is credible, because although she’s mostly stuck at the school she does have a bit of outside life and she also has interior life with time to write and read undisturbed while the rest of them are having Games. Also, it’s clear from some of her asides that she’s already endured much worse physically and emotionally before she got to the school.

I like stories of people who have recently been bereaved or divorced, stories that are about the going-on-afterwards. Mostly these are contemporary fiction stories. I can’t think of what other fantasy stories are mostly about what happens after saving the world at a cost. (The end of Lord of the Rings is great – but it’s not where the story starts.) In Among Others, the main part of the story starts after something both important and awful, with a protagonist who is struggling with loss, still trying to figure out her place in the magic, and trying to make sense of altered personal circumstances as well.

One problem with stories that are ostensibly written as the protagonist’s diary entries is that you have to think about whether the diary is secure. I grew up in a house with a lot of people and little respect for autonomy, so my first thought about diary entries in fiction is whether it’s realistic to expect them to be private. Either the diary discovery will be a plot point (I was scarred young by Harriet the Spy) or the protagonist is writing even less truth than she can bear to think, or the novelist is sort of cheating. In Among Others, though, I found it credible that the diary entries could be both frank and secure, because she says she’s writing them in mirror writing as well as keeping her notebook in her ubiquitous bag – and later mentions getting a locking notebook for Christmas.

The protagonist of Among Others is 15 years old in 1979, and a science fiction and fantasy reader. She reads a lot, comments on what she reads, and also uses her reading experiences to make sense of human behaviour. Although I was a few years older, I didn’t start buying my own books until shortly before 1979, so it was particularly fun to have Mori discovering some of the same new fiction that I was. I still remember discovering The Number of the Beast as an endcap display at the university bookstore, and extravagantly buying the trade paperback on the spur of the moment. Her observations on the books are pithy, opinionated, sometimes funny, and completely in character, and they’ve reminded me of a bunch of books I should read or re-read. I don’t know very many books about people who not only read but use their reading as a way of making sense of the life-outside-books that’s happening concurrently. Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, of course, is another good example, just with a different reading list. And the Tam Lin protagonist, Janet, grew up in an apparently sane and supportive environment such that she hasn’t needed the books to work out how to behave, the way that Mori probably did.

In Canada you can buy Among Others in hardcover for an ordinary hardcover price (less than $30 full price, less than $20 on line at Chapters), or in a Kindle version for around $10. Greenwoods bookstore in Edmonton had a few ordered for the shelves the day I went in to get my pre-order. I understand that access is similar in the USA. But the weird and disappointing bit is that there’s no British hardcopy publication and currently no British sales of electronic versions either. It seems like SF/F fans in Britain would probably embrace the familiarity of Mori’s 1979-1980 reading list even more than those of us in North America, and it seems like if there are young people in Britain today depending on libraries for their science fiction and their real life and hope, they might benefit from this book more than the middle-aged fans who can order books from overseas or disguise their IP addresses to fool the Kindle store. I kind of wish there was a feasible fund to donate copies to libraries in Britain.

———-

Update, November 2012:

Since I wrote this entry, Greenwoods bookstore is no more.

But Among Others has won the Best Novel Hugo 2012, the Best Novel Nebula 2011, and the British Fantasy Award 2012.  The other piece of good news is that Among Others has been published in the UK by Constable and Robinson.

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