While I'm a big fan of action-packed books, there's something to be said for a laid-back coming-of-age tale full of magic and teen angst. This is especially true when it's littered with homages and references to old science fiction and fantasy books. Jo Walton's Among Others is just such a book, and it's wonderfully gripping, though slow patches mar what is otherwise a great book.
Morwenna Phelps (Mori) is a young Welsh girl in the 1970s. She has been sent off to live with her father and his sisters in London after the death of her own twin sister and some mysterious incident with her mother that left her crippled. Her father sends her off to a boarding school because he can't take her in full time. For Mori, magic and faeries are real, but the school is a place where no magic resides. As a coping mechanism throughout her life, Mori has immersed herself in the world of science fiction and fantasy, a recluse who shies away from most social interactions. She risks everything to use her own magic to form a circle of like-minded friends at the school, which unfortunately draws the attention of her mother for a final confrontation that Mori can no longer avoid.
Among Others is told in a series of Mori's diary entries, another way that Mori deals with the ongoing drudgery of her life. She feels completely out of place among the privileged children at the boarding school, children who don't share her interests and look down on her both for her Welsh accent and her upbringing. Through these diary entries, we see a young teenager struggling to grow up, terrified that her magic may have drastic repercussions in the outside world. Her desire for friends, a normal teen angst, is tinged with sadness when she worries that the boyfriend she eventually gets is only attracted to her because she compelled him to like her.
Mori is a fascinating character, a fully three-dimensional person who struggles to find her way. Sometimes we get frustrated with her before realizing that this is what teenagers do: they make mistakes and have irrational fears and desires. Her passion for science fiction and fantasy makes her even more interesting to read about, even if you are not as well-versed in old SF as she is. Some of the references flew over my head because I haven't read that many classics, but her enthusiasm for them is palpable and almost made me want to go out and get some after finishing Among Others. This book really is an homage to the old days of the genre.
That doesn't mean Walton skimps on the character and plotting. Intriguing characters fill the book, from the other girls in school who have their own issues hiding behind some of their arrogant facades, to the members of the book club in town that Mori joins in order to find a home at the school. They all weave in and out of Mori's orbit as she struggles to find her place in the world.
I also love the ambiguity in the novel. While magic certainly exists as far as Mori is concerned, the reader is never sure. Things that happen in the book could certainly have happened without a magical explanation. Mori is convinced that her aunts are witches who are trying to control her and her father. She's convinced that what happened with her mother was witchcraft, but it could very well be just an extremely troubled woman who couldn't handle her children. It's a great book no matter whether or not magic truly does exist.
The pace of the narrative is slow and easy, almost like a pleasant walk down the garden paths inside Mori's head. This even extends to the climax, which is so sedate that I almost didn't notice that it happened even as it comes up rather abruptly. At times, the pace is almost too slow and threatens reader interest. This doesn't usually last for long, though, until Mori does or say something to capture the reader again.
Among Others is a truly magical novel. If you're a fan of
classic fantasy, you have to read this book. Even if you're not, Walton's writing will pull you into Mori's story. You won't be able to help yourself.