[Review] Among Others

Among Others

I kind of adore Jo Walton’s writing. Walton loves to take familiar plots and inject fantastical elements; she has an excellent grasp of the tropes, using the stylistic frameworks as a solid base from which to spin her spell of words. It’s a pattern in her work:  Tooth and Claw is a comedy of manners populated by dragons. Farthing is a classic English cottage mystery in a world where Hitler won the war. And Among Others is a typical boarding-school tale with a twist.

We begin with a flashback, twin girls on a mission to save the fairies. They complete their task, but there’s no flashy spell bringing instant change to the world. Is it real? Or purely in their minds, little girls playing heroes?

Jump five years to one of the girls finding herself in her estranged father’s house. There has been a tragedy; her sister is gone, and she walks with a permanent limp. She does not know these people. And she’s bundled off to school in this strange place, her only choice unless she wants to go back to the mother she fled from, her own personal evil witch.

A synopsis does this story no justice. We all know how English boarding school stories go. This is a coming-of-age story, as are all boarding school tales eventually. The events that occur serve mostly to support the main character’s internal struggle to understand herself and her world.

The novel is epistolary, in diary format. Our protagonist is vague on various points, particularly regarding her sister and what happened, though it is mentioned that no one could tell the twins apart. Even her name is suspect; she refers to her sister as Mor, but as both twins were often referred to by that name, having nearly identical names, one can’t tell which Mor she is. She starts to refer to herself as Mori in her new life, which gives the reader a reference but doesn’t resolve the issue.

Magic and fairies still play a big role in Mori’s life; she tries to find some at her new boarding school, but they are not as common as they were in her home in south Wales. She also speaks of escaping her mother, the evil witch, and how she could still be found by her nemesis if she does magic. There are times she believes she’s being attacked by her mother’s spirit in the night.

The fairies themselves, and Mori’s mythology, are elegantly and uniquely detailed. They typically appear as leaves or gnarled like wood, or wisps in the air. One or two are described as mostly human, but they are otherwise no different. Fairies can’t act on the world, only tell her what they need done, though Mori admits they don’t speak in sentences and her diary contains what she thought they said.

School is isolating for Mori, outcast both for her Welsh origin and her disability. The school is heavily focused on sports, so she spends a lot of time in the library, reading. Oh, does she read… and tells us all her thoughts on the books she reads, mainly science fiction. There are pages and pages dedicated to lauding one author or nitpicking another. Mori’s diary, whatever else it may be, is a paean to the stories of her time; she namechecks most of classic SF’s best and brightest, as well as a few that may be more obscure to the modern reader. I haven’t read most of what she mentions, but I’m familiar enough with the genre classics to follow along.

Mori writes of her life, but even she admits that some of the stuff she does may not be what it seems. Her magic is of the coincidental sort; “deniable,” she calls it. When she casts a wish-spell and her wish comes true, is it because magic rearranged the world so she could have it, or is it a mere set of coincidences that just happened to lead to her desire? If it is true, does that mean the new friends she finds actually like her, or were they manipulated by her spell? Are her fairies, who often look like pieces of nature around her, really there or is she imagining it all?

I remember being this age. I remember being this isolated, and how books kept me company. I remember believing in magic, real magic, deniable magic… I remember living in a world where maybe, maybe, things were not quite what they seemed.

This is a world of what-ifs and what-could-have-beens. Any magical happenings occur when Mori’s alone. When the truth comes out about the accident,  Mori says there was magic involved, but admits the exact event was purely mundane. We never really find out why she fears her mother, or what sort of magic was done in their battle. We can never be sure if her family even recognizes her mother as the madwoman Mori makes her out to be. I even found it unclear as to whether there were two girls before, or just one. Mor’s ghost inhabits the story even when she’s not on the page, but Mori only speaks of her sister to her diary. No one else seems to mention her either. The family doesn’t seem to question, but neither do they outright acknowledge her twin’s existence. And we only have Mori’s word that they’re saying what we think they’re saying. I find that part of the charm, however; I think everyone can relate, at least a little, to needing their own version of reality once in a while.

Walton’s writing is gorgeous; Mori’s voice is mostly matter-of-fact, but her world is often wisps and shadows. Places are strong, especially the descriptions of South Wales. The reader feels how connected Mori is to her birth home, and how tenuous her connection to posh and strange England. We hear her brittleness when she speaks of her tragedy, even as she fights to maintain a calm facade. We feel the love inherent in the libraries and bookstores, the comfort of having words to read, and the passion of a true book-lover for the freedom and escape found in story. There’s truth in this fantasy; the questions are real even if we never know the answers.

I may love this book more than is rational; I can’t say for sure. (Oh, the irony!) The details may be different, but this is my story. The isolation, the imagination, the books… oh, the books. This is the magic of Among Others: it’s real.

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