“I do not miss my toys. I wouldn’t play with them anyway. I am fifteen. I miss my childhood.”
-Jo Walton, Among Others, p.160
So I (finally) finished reading Among Others by Jo Walton. This novel won the Hugo Award and the Nebula Award for Best Novel, and the British Fantasy Award. This is what got it on my radar, for sure, and might be where you’ve heard of it. After all, that’s a lot of the big awards, and it’s rare for one book to run away with all of them.
So there must be something for everyone in this book, right? A relatable character, a known world or a well-actualized fictional one. Right? Oh, and it’s about fairies and magic. So the fairies must be well defined, and the magic must have a solid system and explanation.
Or… none of those things.
I don’t know if I can place what makes this story so good. Or why I liked it so very, very much. But I am going to try. So to do that, let me tell you what the book is about. I suppose what follows could be considered spoilers, but only in a basic sense that I tell you about the book, and better yet, let the book tell you about itself.
A Story About Place
“I come from the Welsh Valleys. There’s a reason they’re called “The Valleys.” They’re steep narrow glaciated valleys without much flat land at the bottom. There are valleys just like them all over Wales. Most of them have a church and a few farms, maybe a thousand people in the whole valley. That’s what they can naturally support. Our valley, the Cynon Valley, like its neighbours, has a population of more than a hundred thousand, all living in Victorian terraced houses, terraced up the hillsides like grapes, stuck together in rows with barely room between to hang out washing. The houses and the people are jammed together, like in a city, worse than a city, except that it isn’t a city. But away from those rows, it was wild.”
-Jo Walton, Among Others, p.31
Wales. Not so far from Oxford, where the Inklings – famous writers like J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis – did their writing. A magic place, so very close to the mundane and the ordinary. The main character, Mor, has her past in Wales, her blood and her family and her life. But then, the book mainly takes place in or near an English boarding school, like an incredibly ordinary, boring Hogwarts.
She of course hates it there.
She would rather be outside, somewhere natural, somewhere magical. And when you come from a place that looks like Tolkien might describe it, I don’t blame her. I’ve been to Wales, have hiked the mountains, seen the Valleys. I’ve heard Welsh. I could believe in magic there.
Beyond Wales, though, this is a book very grounded in life in England, something that I loved immensely. I have been to England several times, and just little details… like instant coffee rather than coffee made from grounds. So true. This book is very grounded in the place it is set, grounded in a very real world – which then makes adding a little magic just that much more interesting.
A Story About Science Fiction… Set in a Fantasy World
“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization.
“Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”
-Jo Walton, Among Others, p.59
There’s magic, and the wilds, and faeries, but Mor is no longer in Wales. The faeries are hard to find, and don’t know her or trust her. Also, she’s injured – she walks with a cane. Heading out into the wild and free is just not as easy of a prospect as it once was.
So where does she escape? Where does she find magic, and see the future? Books! This is not a science fiction story. It is, if anything, a fantasy story, or perhaps urban fantasy. But it is inherently and predominantly about SF, about science fiction. Mor is a huge fan and a voracious reader.
The book is told in journal format, and when she isn’t writing this, she tends to be reading. Each new entry has new thoughts on a book, listings of what she has been reading. It’s a who’s who in mid-century science fiction, with the great works and writers all getting a fair showing.
When she finally gets to Dune, and almost dismisses it at first… I worried. And then she never reviews it. No, but she lives it. Never has the Litany Against Fear been more alive, and I have to say, it works.
And when she gets to the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book she wouldn’t possibly have picked up on her own (as a respectable SF reader)… and yet which she enjoys immensely!
Or talking about how Asimov had great ideas, even if he wasn’t a great writer!
I am a slow reader, and there’s a lot I still want to read. This book is likely to become the source for my reading list for a long time to come. Some of it – quite a lot of it, really – was already on my radar, my Amazon Wish List. Some, like Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke, is sitting next to my bed waiting to be read.
But beyond just a joy for SF, there is an understanding of the importance of SF. About how you can learn more about ethics and morality from it. That they are better and more educational reading than books written with a purpose of being educational. Things like that. So, you know, some of my favorite sort of stuff to think about and talk about.
Which she does in the book, at libraries, in a book group. She eventually even discovers the idea of fandoms, of conventions. And describes how, for her, these things are a lifesaver – that they keep her from being alone.
Because she was alone. She had a twin – who is now dead.
A Coming of Age Story
“I had said that Le Guin’s worlds were real because her people were so real, and he said yes, but the people were so real because they were the people the worlds would have produced. If you put Ged to grow up on Anarres or Shevek in Earthsea, they wouldn’t be the same people, the backgrounds made the people, which of course you see all the time in mainstream fiction, but it’s rare in SF.”
-Jo Walton, Among Others, p.136
For this fifteen-year-old, Welsh, magic-using, faerie-knowing, science-fiction-reading, crippled, runaway, half of what had been twins, this is a coming of age story. I feel it is important to point out all of these bits because I imagine there have not been many characters like her in the world, or in fiction.
Something new under the sun?
So even while this might in part be the sort of story that is like write-what-you-know (place and Wales), and a meta-story about science fiction with some plot thrown in, it is also an intensely personal story, about a very unique, alive young woman. An amazing character. And, as the quote above would point out, the sort of character that the world she grew up in would have produced.
I feel I could spoil every major plot point, could list every novel and author discussed in the book, lay out all of these things for you – and I would still have to say you need to read the book, to experience this memoir account of this fully-actualized fictional character. Coming to terms with her future, with her life, with moving on.
So Who is This Book For?
Well, I suppose the first answer that comes to mind is it’s for me. With a nostalgia for the United Kingdom, for childhood, for reading and SF and Fantasy, for arguing the importance of those genres, for the love of libraries. It struck practically every chord you could with me, even exploring how religion would fit in with the world as presented. Dealing with hard questions, dealing with everyday life. With magic, with books. It’s great.
But the audience is more than just me. The people who enjoyed it was more than me. Because like I said – it won the Hugo, the Nebula, the British Fantasy Award. Other people liked it. So, pun intended I suppose, in like this book I am Among Others.
So add this one to your reading list – and make sure you save room on that list. There’s more you may want to read after you’re done!
As to that, this one took me a few months to finish, but I am definitely shooting for a new book or two to read. I’m not sure what I’ll get to first – I have some traveling coming up, so hopefully some solid reading time. I’m thinking Childhood’s End and some Le Guin (never read any!) are my plans. Any recommendations? Let me know in the comments below! And if you’ve read the book, I’d love to discuss it further. Otherwise, highly recommended! Go forth and read!