Among Others by Jo Walton

Posted On 30 December 2012

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Just finished reading Among Others by Jo Walton.  I confess I have mixed feelings about this book which I think have stopped me from loving this as much as I wanted although I did enjoy it and thought the story was really well written.

Mori is a 15 year old girl.  Her twin sister has died in an accident that also left Mori with a damaged hip leaving her needing to use a stick to walk.  Mori ran away from her mother and after a short spell living at a children’s home has gone to live with her estranged father (Daniel) and his three sisters.  She is despatched to the local boarding school where she struggles to fit in.  The difference with Mori and the other school girls is that she believes in magic and fairies.  She thinks her mother is a witch who is using dark magic for her own gain and she constantly sees and, in fact talks to, the fairies who exist all around us.

I think this is one of the areas that is really well done.  I was never quite sure if the magic and fairies were just a product of Mori’s imagination and a coping mechanism or whether she was really experiencing something strange and wonderful.  It’s very subtly written.  The magic isn’t all about flashing wands and broomsticks but simple rituals, wards and protections and the belief that Mori has in the magic.  If Mori attempts magic she’s never sure if something would actually have occurred naturally or not.  There’s also the ‘wicked mother’ element – is her mother evil or is she suffering herself – you’re never quite sure.  Or at least I wasn’t.  For me Mori came across as a lonely character who has maybe suffered neglect, loss and the feeling of not being wanted by her family who has this whole other magical community surrounding her that nobody else can see.  It’s sort of like an imaginary friend.

The method of story telling is through a diary which Mori keeps.  Again, I think this is a really good form of story telling.  At first you could be forgiven for thinking that some of the entries are a little bland but this is a 15 year old girl after all.  I remember keeping a diary for a couple of years with some sort of romantic notion that I would later look back on these and it would be a revelation – it wasn’t.  I did in fact look back as a precursor to having a good clear out and the writing was the most inane imaginable.  Actually Mori’s diaries are amazing by comparison!!  The only issue I had with the diary system of story telling is that you’re never really made fully aware of what actually did take place in Mori’s life beforehand.  After all, she’s writing a diary about ‘now’ not ‘then’ and so this means that there is a very slow reveal to past occurrences and you never fully gather a full picture of her history.  What I did question with the diary entries were that there never appeared to be a great deal of sadness about the loss of the sister – or it didn’t come across to me as though there was but perhaps I misinterpreted it?

The thing that book lovers can’t fail to enjoy, particularly science fiction and fantasy lovers, are all the references to books and authors, bookshops and libraries.  I loved reading about all that although I didn’t know half the books mentioned and I’m sure a lot of references went straight over my head.  I think however that this could become a little bit tedious to those people out there who are not quite as book absorbed as Mori – and OMG how quickly did she read – I’m surprised she had any time for school work (but I suppose when you consider that virtually all her time was spent in school it must be a very long day)!

I will admit that Mori puzzled me.  At first, and particularly with her style of diary keeping, I wondered if she had issues with socialising – she seemed a very lone person and to an extent quite happy to be alone.  She was a little bit detached and had a very black and white way of looking at things.  Even when she attracted the attention of an older and rather good looking boy at her book club I wouldn’t say she came across as giddy about it like you would expect of a schoolgirl.

On the whole I think this is a lovely subtle read, a coming of age of a young girl who has suffered loss and is coming to terms with her circumstances in the best way she can and using her overpowering love of books to help her.  It was great to see Mori start to interact with other people and come out of her shell and also to see how others started to respond to her and become more caring.  I think if you go into this with any thoughts of all sorts of magic and mysticism then you may be disappointed.  Like I mentioned earlier this is a very subtle story.

In terms of criticisms – the whole boyfriend issue felt a little too easily worked out.  Everything just seemed to fall into place too easily.  Mori never seemed to suffer from any sort of nerves or embarrassment and also I wasn’t totally convinced that it was necessary to the story and it somehow felt a little bit tacked on.  I also thought it somehow felt a little out of character with Mori – suddenly she was all about the good looking boy and seemed to quite easily drop the other friends she had just made – okay, I can imagine that happening with girls that age – but Mori came across as different is all.

There was one other issue that I had which related to a particular episode between Mori and her father Daniel where it appeared that he made a sexual pass at her that was then dropped and never referred to again.  I don’t know, I just found that a little disturbing but the fact that no further reference was made to the episode me wonder if the author was in some way trying to make the reader doubt Mori’s own diary accounts or to maybe not totally trust her telling of events?  Almost as though she perhaps makes things up??

However, in spite of a few little criticisms I think this is a good read that you can’t fail to enjoy.  I think you need to go into this with the right sort of expectations but with that proviso it’s a well written and very easy to read story.





18 Responses to “Among Others by Jo Walton”

  1. Carl V.

    This was my favorite book of 2011. Read it twice in a row, once myself and then immediately turned around and read it aloud to my wife. The scene with the dad was a weird one that I didn’t like and left me wondering if this part of the story (which Walton has said has *some* autobiographical inspiration) was something that happened in her life. I hope not. I hope it was just some odd artistic choice she made. And I wasn’t entirely thrilled with the boyfriend thing either because I remember feeling (though I don’t know why now) that he was a bit of a suspicious character to me. But those criticisms paled in light of the love affair for reading SFF that this book was. That is what got me, that and the whole idea of the karass.

    It was that concept in the light of the way my reading life has changed with the world of blogging that just sucked me in to this book and gave me an extremely personal connection with it.

    It is interesting to read reviews of this book because I’ve read gushing reviews like mine and loathing reviews as well.

    • lynnsbooks

      I did like it, there were just a few things that seemed to stop me from loving it. I remember your review and I know you really liked this – to be honest it makes me think something is wrong with me when I don’t love something the same way! I liked the setting at the boarding school and I really liked the diary format but I suppose I wanted more detail about what actually had happened – I think I’m a bit too anal sometimes 😦
      I know what you mean about Wim. He came across as using Mori somehow – he was more interested in whether she could do magic or not and help him to see fairies or elves. He came across as a bit of a user really. In some respects it reminded me very much of Curtis Sittenfield’s Prep – which is also about a girl who goes to boarding school, is a bit of an outcast and also gets used and learns a hard lesson by one of the rich boys.
      What I really enjoyed about the story was all the book references – being a bit bookish after all – that all really appealed to me. I loved Mori’s enthusiasm for her reading and I thought it was really good the way the author shows that Mori’s love of books actually helped her to become more confident and start to make more friends.
      I also really liked the ambiguity about the magic and the fairies. For me, Mori was scarred and needed something to help her cope. The magic and the fey were that for her. They made her feel different and special which is definitely something she needed at the time.
      You see, now I’m talking about the book I’m enjoying it much more already!
      I think the thing that brought it down a bit for me was the ending – which I thought was a bit weak, and the issue about not really finding out about Mori’s past. But having thought that issue through I don’t suppose you need to be told everything, in fact it’s a good ploy by the author. It allows you to use your own imagination in a much more effective way, a bit like whether you believe whether Mori is actually seeing fairies or not. She’s left so much open to interpretation by the reader and I think that’s a really clever thing to do.
      I hope that the ‘episode’ with the father wasn’t something that happened in her life. It was a strange point in the story and I couldn’t quite decide about it. I wondered again if the author was trying to make us doubt Mori at that point – as though she imagined more than actually took place. Or alternatively whether she was showing us more of Mori’s detached personality – so it did happen and Mori didn’t really reflect on it? Still puzzled about that.
      On the whole I didn’t really have a lot of criticisms. I certainly didn’t loath it and I would recommend it to others. It’s a good read. Interesting, well told and gives you a lot to consider at the end.
      Sci fi fans must be doing cartwheels over all the book references. I recognised some of the names and I was really pleased to see Anne McCaffrey’s dragonrider series given a shout out!
      Lynn 😀

      • Carl V.

        I wouldn’t be too worried about it, the only thing “wrong” with you is what is actually “right” about you–you are a human being with unique experiences to the entertainment you take in. 🙂 I just read a post recently where the author used Among Others as an example of all that is wrong with the awards system for SFF, saying that its win was an example of the corruption of the system and describing the book as ‘banal’.

        My love of the book is based almost entirely on the book aspect of the story. I started reading science fiction when I was about 9 or 10 years old and never had anyone to talk to about it as no one I knew was reading the same thing. When she discovers the book club I felt such a kinship with her because I felt that has happened with me with my online friendships. It was that love affair with reading and especially with SFF that turned me on to the book and easily had me scanning over any criticisms (with the exception of the dad moment).

        I think some science fiction fans who disliked it just felt like she was name-dropping books but it is obvious from all her columns on that she is extremely well read and unlike some authors she actually still loves many of the classics. The books she included are books she has actually read and enjoyed, or not, based on what she said about them in the book.

        I also tend to always take the approach that the ‘fantasy’ elements in a story like this are real. I just naturally bend that way. I have the same feelings about Pan’s Labyrinth, as an example.

        I doubt the book is as perfect as my initial feelings on it indicated, but that is the way I review, it is often all about my emotional experience with the book and less about any flaws the book might have.

        There is nothing wrong with you. 🙂

      • lynnsbooks

        I must say that sometimes I think I should have a little reflection on a book before I write a review – as it is all my most random thoughts come tumbling out in an incoherent mess! Having said that, if I don’t write my review fairly promptly then it basically doesn’t happen. 😦
        I also really enjoyed the book aspect to the story and particularly how Mori gained friends and confidence because of their shared interest. I wish I’d had a book club when I was that age but to be truthful I would probably have been too shy to contribute to any discussion (not to mention red in the face – it’s an affliction that all the women in our family share ‘rosy cheeks’ and people are often kind enough to mention ‘oh, you’ve gone red’ – because that of course always helps LOL).
        I just sat and read all my dad’s books when I was Mori’s age which is why I’ve read lots of classics – and there again I differ from my dad with lots of books as he is also very partial to non-fiction, particularly historical and I tend to read mostly fiction. It makes him easy to buy books for though!
        I loved Pan’s Labyrinthe and it’s a really good example of divided opinion. Me and Paul love this film and yet have differing opinions. I think at the end that the young girl has gone to her father’s realm whereas Paul thinks she has pure and simple died. Funny how you can both love something and yet share opposing thoughts.
        I love that feeling of finding a perfect book though – I’m glad it made you feel like that and appealed to you emotionally. That’s the power of books I suppose and it’s made even better when other people share that experience.
        I’m trying now to think of my perfect book but it’s too difficult to pin down and there have been such a lot over the years!
        Lynn 😀

      • Carl V.

        I prefer to write my reviews while in the throes of the emotions of the moment and like reading those kind of reviews as well. I too often don’t get around to writing them if I wait too long. The mood passes and with it my desire to write about it. I’m not very disciplined that way.

        I pretty much always tend towards the more optimistic ending which for me, in PL, is that the girl went back to her father’s realm. It is just as poignant either way to me though and don’t fault the other opinion as it is just as valid.

      • lynnsbooks

        I know, I guess I was just really hoping for the happy end feeling! I still love that film though and I’m going to carry on with my imagined ending 😀

  2. TBM

    This one seems like a mixed bag. I’m curious though since Carl loved it and you are lukewarm about it. It goes to show how personal reading is–everyone has their own reaction.

    • lynnsbooks

      I know. I actually did expect to love this one I must admit because I usually do love ALL of Carl’s recommendations. I did like it but wasn’t totally bowled over say in the way I was with Gaiman. I like the author’s writing style, the setting and the use of the diary but was a bit disappointed with the end. On the whole it’s definitely a book worth reading. It’s a quick read, the voice of Mori is entertaining and I think it’s the sort of book that everyone will take something different from. I know that some people thought all the book references were too much but I really enjoyed all that – even though some of it went over my head – sci fi not being something I’ve read much of.

  3. "Auntie"

    I read only as far as the magic! I WANT to read it! 🙂 Thank you.

    Happy New Year’s Eve, to you, my Dear Blogging Friend!

    • lynnsbooks

      I think you’ll really enjoy it. It’s a lovely written story and I like the diary aspect. Would love to know how you get on with it.
      Happy New Year to you and all your family. I hope you have a wonderful evening spent in good company and wish you all the best for 2013
      Lynn 😀

  4. nrlymrtl

    I haven’t read any of Jo Walton’s novels, tho I vaguely remember reading some of her short stories many years ago, and I liked them. This sounds like an interesting read – the magic element, told through a diary, and perhaps an unreliable narrator. I’ll keep my eye out for it at the library.

    • lynnsbooks

      I haven’t read anything else by Jo Walton but will certainly look for some of her other novels. Surprisingly my library didn’t seem to have any of her works in stock!
      I hope you find a copy because I’d love to know what you think too.
      Lynn 😀

  5. Redhead

    I had mixed feelings on this book too, but I think it’s because I wanted it to be something different than it was. didn’t help that I got caught up in the hype, so was going in with unrealistic expectations.

    • lynnsbooks

      I think that was partly my problem. I just think I was expecting more sort of ‘full on’ fantasy and I suppose what I came away with was a feeling of not being quite sure what side of the fence I was left sitting on. Personally, I thought the fairies and magic were just Mori’s coping mechanism whereas I would have liked to have come away with that feeling of ‘oh, she really did have magic’.
      Lynn 😀

  6. Tanya Patrice

    I didn’t have mixed feelings – I straight up wasn’t really a fan, but I thought it was okay. I particularly didn’t like all the references to all the books she read – too many for me (same thing I thought about The Marriage Plot), but I definitely can see how science fiction fans would eat this up. And it seemed the book had depth in many instances (like about her developing relationship with her father) – but then it seemed to lack the same depth in other important aspects – like with her mom killing her sister and even her ability to see the fairies when others couldn’t. I don’t know – this book seemed to be all over the place, and where I thought the focus would be – it wasn’t.

    • lynnsbooks

      Ha, you really weren’t a fan! Well, I didn’t out and out dislike it I just had mixed feelings about it, think I went in with the wrong expectations and didn’t think it answered my questions but I wonder whether the author meant for that – like a use your own imagination type affair. I liked the bookish references even though a lot of them went over my head, it was a bit of a love letter to sci fi fans I suppose. I did want a bit more about Mori’s mother rather than just outright hatred – why?? And, what really happened?? I liked the diary style of writing but in his instance it was a little constrained in how much info could actually be put across.
      Lynn 😀

  7. cherylmahoney

    I had mixed feelings about this one too. A lot that was very interesting, but I just couldn’t love it. I wanted more on the magic, I think–and even though the point was that the magic was low-key and not flashy…I *wanted* it to be more striking!

    • lynnsbooks

      I guess that was probably my feeling too – I just wanted ‘more’ magic! Not a bad book or anything but I just think I went into it with the wrong expectations.
      Lynn 😀

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