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  1. #1
    Administrator Administrator Hobbit's Avatar
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    March - April 2012 Fantasy BotM: Among Others by Jo Walton

    A recent publication, this.



    Here's what Rob thought of it when he reviewed it in 2011:

    Some novels are magical in their depiction of the mundane, ordinary life. When such novels add a sprinkling of magic and personal, then it is possible for said novel to transcend labels and simply be a wonderful and moving fictional account that touches upon the heartstrings of reality. In Jo Waltonís admittedly semi-autobiographical novel, Among Others, we meet a young girl named Morwenna Phelps who very much feels she is an outsider wherever she goes, especially after the recent death of her twin sister. This is can be consider a coming of age novel and despite the separation of an ocean, gender, and age, Mor is one of the most empathetic and identifiable protagonists Iíve come across in a long while. Or rather, what happens after one comes of age and has to pick up the pieces of a devastating loss.

    A novel like this is very difficult to sum up without giving away too many spoilers or revealing the joy of discovery Mor experiences. Essentially, Among Others is epistolary novel told through Morís diary. Though I havenít read too many novels structured in this manner, I wonder if they all hold the same addictive, powerful and voyeuristic appeal as does Waltonís novel. What made this novel work so well for me, and many readers of SF, is Morís unbridled love of the genre and perhaps more importantly, how it essentially saved her and allowed her to move on from the tragedy she experienced into the next stage of her life. The novel can be seen as a testament to not only the power of story and the written word, but also the power of community so strongly associated with SF. In fact, as I was reading the novel I very much wanted to visit some of the books Mor read. I made a journey to the local used bookshop to pick up some older SF contemporary with many of the novels Mor read, as well as Waltonís debut novel The Kingís Peace.

    One element I mulled over while reading the novel, and now upon reflection is how reliable a narrator Mor truly is. We only have her words and impressions on which to judge other characters and the situations, so the truth of her sister and the remainder of her family, most importantly her mother, can only be trusted. That having been said, the truth of the magic and faeries Mor sees, meets, and knows is honest and plausible. Neil Gaiman appropriated a G.K. Chesterton quote for Coraline, his modern young adult classic Ė ďFairy tales are more than true ó not because they tell us dragons exist, but because they tell us dragons can be beaten.Ē For Waltonís tale, I would say Morís tale is true because the Faeries and Morís magic tells us we can overcome the greatest challenges of our lives.

    Among Others is a fantasy novel that doubles as a love letter to the Golden Age of SF Ė that age when we discover the power and our passion for the genre. This should be required reading for all fans of the genre.
    "A masterpiece." Do you agree?

    Discuss!

    Mark
    Mark

  2. #2
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    "If you love books enough, books will love you back"
    I quite enjoyed this book. It's a coming of age story, but even more importantly for those on this forum, it's the coming of age story of a voracious book worm, a science fiction fan. Mor is more than a fan though - so how much of how she sees the world is through the lens of the books she has read. What she sees and interprets of the world around her is in relation to, and influenced by, what she has read.
    The grounding from which this view is based though, is her Welsh heritage and the connection to the fairies of that landscape. There is an excellent passage early on in the book which ties together these major influences in Mor's life:
    "... it was the landscape that formed us, that made us who we were as we grew in it, that affected everything. We thought we were living in a fantasy landscape when we were actually living in a science fictional one. In ignorance, we played our way through what the giants and elves had left us, taking the fairies' posession for ownership. I named the dramroads after places in The Lord of the Rings when I should have recognised that they were from The Chrysalids."

    It's a great passage amongst many others in the book. "If she wore a burberry and a silk scarf it would look like a disguise, a cloth dragged over an altar where something had been sacrificed" is another favourite.

    Walton also does a terrific job of showing an aspect of SF fandom in being an outsider to most people, but strongly regarded within the community. This, when tied to a typical feeling of teen isolation, makes for another point of identification for genre fans. "I don't think I'm like other people. I mean on some deep fundamental level ... It's not just being outside while they're all inside. I used to be inside. I think there's a way I stand aside and look backwards at things when they're happening which isn't normal"

    Another thing I enjoyed were the funny moments in the book produced both in our knowledge of the books she reads (On Tiptree, "This one has an introduction by Le Guin, so she must like him too!"), and in the voice of Mor herself ("I don't know what I think about Jesus, but I know what I think about Aslan." and "They all looked awful, being of the category of books about teenagers with problems - drugs, or abusive parents, or boyfriends who push for sex, or living in Ireland.")

    WFA winner Tooth and Claw is the only other Walton I've read prior to this - I can't say I was a big fan, and thought there were some much more deserving winners that year (three excellent novels, Veniss Underground, The Light Ages and The Etched City were also on the short list). This book, to me at least, is miles better. I don't think it's quite in the same league as Joyce's The Facts of Life, but it gets very close.
    Rob and I are in agreement on the quality of this one.

  3. #3
    \m/ BEER \m/ Moderator Rob B's Avatar
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    I recall Mor's voice being so strong, one of the stronger protagonist's voices I've encountered. I suspect there's more of Jo in her than most authors put in their characters.

    I would be SHOCKED if this didn't win a couple of awards. After all, books about books - when done well - are big with the awards.

  4. #4
    It never entered my mind algernoninc's Avatar
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    liked this a lot:

    Bibliotropic. Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn towards the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop.

    Here is probably an explanation of why I love this story so much. It feels written especially for me. I recognize myself as a member of this group that is unable to pass a bookshop without entering and browsing the shelves. This resonance phenomenon to a particular text happened to me with another book recently : Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and it was described by a reviewer as "nostalgia-porn" - getting high on shared experiences between the writer and the reader, a recognition of feelings and attitudes, in this case being 15 in the year 1979. I am born in 1964 and half of a pair of twins, so I was the same age as Morvenna in the book, and I remember clearly how anxious I was about not having enough easily available books for reading. I had membership cards at all three libraries in my hometown, plus the underground exchange ring in the classroom, when we passed popular books from hand to hand until they came apart of the seams.

    So I was already predisposed to enjoy the book, and the "Dear Diary" format added a layer of intimacy and implied honesty in the narration beyond the recognition of the books I've read and rediscovered mentioned here. Morwenna is an opinionated young lady when it comes to literature, and this book can be decoded as a longish essay on the state of speculative fiction at the end of the 70's. Her courage, intelligence and wit make for an easy read, and I quickly started to root for her - in finding a "karass" , in overcoming physical disability, in recovering her scattered family, and in defying the adversity of "Others" - basically the alien English upper class education system. A recurring theme throughout the book, is the girl's reliance on literature to help her get over troubled waters:

    I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.

    I had a few issues with the story, basically a couple of unconvincing scenes (earpiercing?) and the lack of actual plot. The magical crisis in Morwenna's life is either alluded to in events before the narrative started or dismissed rather abruptly in a couple of pages by the end. But I found the question of magic in a contemporary setting and the whole ambiguity about the nature of magic well rendered here. There is also the possibility that it is all happening inside the mind of a girl with a rampant imagination, retreating inside her safe zone of childhood myths after a devastating trauma. Well done as far as I'm concerned:

    - I always wanted the world to have magic in it.
    - I'd prefer spaceships. Or if there has to be magic, then less confusing magic, magic with easy rules, like in books.


    Another point of interest for me was the description of the twins childhood in Wales - freeroaming in the landscape, reenacting favorite stories and getting in touch with the natural world :

    With the kiss of the sun for pardon and the song of the birds for mirth, one is nearer God's heart in a garden than anywhere else on Earth.

    I have read recently three other books that I would recommend to fans of this type of story, featuring young adults growing up in a magical environment : Shadow of the Wind by Carlos Ruiz Zafon, The Tooth Fairy by Graham Joyce and Tamsyn by Peter S Beagle.

    Now that I finished Among Others, my first impulse is to pick it up and re-read it, this time with pen and paper prepared for listing all the authors and books mentioned in Morwenna's diary, and see what I read and what I still need to track down. I also hope Jo Walton will write a sequel.

    I am also left with a feeling of envy, of wishing I had this ability to express myself so enthusiastically about the books I love and to convince others of the joy of reading :

    There are some awful things in the world, it's true, but there are also some great books. When I grow up I would like to write something that someone could read sitting on a bench on a day that isn't all that warm and they could sit reading it and totally forget where they were or what time it was so that they were more inside the book than inside their own head.

  5. #5
    I enjoyed most of this book, although it was admittedly rather rambling and slow-moving. HOWEVER, IMHO Walton blew it when she had the boy (sorry, I'm terrible with names and I've already forgotten his) see the fairies and therefore made all the magic "real".

    Up until that point, I was really intrigued with the uncertainty over whether the fairies and magic were real, or were just products of Mor's overactive imagination. The sorts of "magic" she did were exactly the sorts of things bright kids would dream up on their own -- placing rocks on a windowsill, gathering leaves, and so on -- and the reader never could really tell whether things were happening as Mor was recounting them, or whether that was her imaginative spin on the story. Was her mom really an evil witch, or was she just a crazy lady that Mor had to try to understand in her own way? Were the aunts really trying to destroy her magic by getting her ears pierced, or was Mor just frightened? And so on. But once the boy also saw the fairies and experienced the magic, the jig was up -- it all had to be real, since Mor was no longer the only one seeing it. And that really disappointed me.

    That's similar to the Covenant series. I was really disappointed when Donaldson started writing sections from other POVs, because that meant the Land was definitely real and not just a product of Covenant's imagination. I love that uncertainty, and I think both authors destroyed something valuable in their stories when they let that uncertainty go by the wayside.

    My two cents!

  6. #6
    I like to rock the party Corporal Blues's Avatar
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    I just finished this one up last night. I liked it overall, even if I hadn't read 99% of the old SF novels that were an integral part of the narrative. It would have been nice to feel like I was "in" on that aspect of the novel.

    A couple things did bug me though. The "real" magic like Contrarius mentioned was a bit of a let down.

    Also, like Algernoninc mentioned, the showdown with her mum came across as weird, and didn't seem to fit with the story.

    The thing that bugged me most is that Mor's dad, Daniel tried to sexually assault her, and I felt like that got glossed over, and easily forgotten, to the point that by the end, Mor has essentially built a new family for herself, and Daniel was a huge part of that. That whole bit just didn't sit right with me.

    On a positive note, I loved the first-person dear diary style of story telling. This was my first Jo Walton read, and I'm very impressed.

  7. #7
    Quote Originally Posted by Contrarius View Post
    Was her mom really an evil witch, or was she just a crazy lady that Mor had to try to understand in her own way? Were the aunts really trying to destroy her magic by getting her ears pierced, or was Mor just frightened?
    My two cents!
    I had the same questions after reading the book. Mostly if her aunts were really evil.

  8. #8
    Cranky old broad AuntiePam's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Contrarius View Post
    I enjoyed most of this book, although it was admittedly rather rambling and slow-moving. HOWEVER, IMHO Walton blew it when she had the boy (sorry, I'm terrible with names and I've already forgotten his) see the fairies and therefore made all the magic "real".
    I was okay with this. Mori decides that the boy (Garaint?) was only pretending to see the fairies.

    I'm about halfway through and I've been enthralled on every page. I'm curious to see if the magic is real, but whether or not it is, it won't matter.

    Why don't more writers have their characters reading and commenting on books? It connects us.

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