Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Book Review: Among Others

Among Others is a unique and catchy tale told in first person, diary entry style which I hear is called Epistolary style.  (Word of the day!) Whatever you want to call it, this is an incredibly easy book to fall into, and one of the most unique novels I've ever read.

We meet Morwenna Phelps, the voice of this epistolary narrative, after recent half-eluded to events, (some sort of showdown with her magic-using mother), which left her hobbled, and her twin sister dead. Morwenna has run away from her hometown in Wales to her father's estate in England and the father, whom she barely knows, has shuffled her off to an elite boarding school where Mori feels like a complete outsider.

Gone are her days of exploring industrial ruins and conversing with the fairies who dwell there, gone is her sister, her constant companion in life, and gone is her sense of belonging.  What's left, her only refuge from her bratty classmates and her mother's spiteful letters, is her love for books. Science fiction books to be more precise.

After swearing off magic, expect for protective purposes, Mori is tempted to once again use her arts to find a circle of like-minded friends, but she fears her magic will draw the attention and wrath of her mother.

Among Others is a lot of things, all them great. For one, it's a coming of age story, which tend to be hit or miss with me.  I initially balked at the idea that this was a coming of age tale, because Mori seemed so mature, and intelligent for her age. At the very least she seems equal to many of the adults around her, but there is a large degree of growth that she experiences in this novel and it was nice to witness her growth through her diary entries.

Secondly, Among Others is very much a love letter to the science fiction and fantasy novels of the 50's, 60's and 70's.  Mori is a huge sf fan, and through these works she learns about life, connects with other people, and grows.  Make no mistake, this girl is incredibly well read.  I think those who are well versed in the works of LeGuin, Heinlein, Zelazny, Delany, and many others will likely find a deeper connection to this novel, but I had only read a mere fraction of the novels that get attention in Among Others and at times I felt like I wasn't quite getting the fullest understanding of Mori's thoughts.  Still, despite that, I had little problem enjoying the novel, and even if one hasn't read pretty much every sf novel published between 1950-1980 that factor will in no way kill anyone's enjoyment of this novel.

Thirdly, Among Others is one of those rare books where I was able to feel like each time I opened it up to read I was falling into another more magical and wonderful world.  It's an experience that as a kid, got me to fall in love with books, but as an adult had been an elusive feeling.  This was one of those books though. Just in case you were wondering, the feeling is still just as wonderful now as it was then.

The author, Jo Walton, has done a fine job crafting her characters here, particularly Morwenna. She's a very interesting person, and getting inside her head made for an exciting journey.  She's also incredibly easy to root for.  There's an prologue entry from four or five years prior to the events of the novel, and through that we get a chance to see Mori before the events that led her to runaway from home and she is much softer edged and lighthearted than the Mori we see in the main narrative.  That glimpse into her past gave insight into the person she was in current times.  It was a pretty simple device, but one that paid big dividends throughout the novel.

Since the story is told through diary/journal entries, at first I felt like I was wrongfully spying on a perfect stranger, but after a while morphed into feeling like Mori was letting me in on her life.  I definitely enjoyed this style of telling the story, and I think Walton's handling of this unique style was flawless.  An impressive feat for sure.

Though I enjoyed Among Others immensely, I did have a couple gripes.  There were some plot elements, and I wont name names for fear of spoiling things, that I wished had remained a mystery throughout.  Let's just say there's some reveals I could have done without, and I think had they remained a mystery, would have added more power to the narrative.  Also, there's one scene between Mori and her father that should have had great repercussions for their relationship that I think wrongfully got glossed over and put in the rear view mirror.  Lastly, the opposing forces of Mori and her Mother don't play out to a very satisfying ending.  This element was most responsible for taking away a bit of my enjoyment.

Those few gripes sit heavily, because this book came so close to being something really special.  I enjoyed this book, but it just missed hitting the bullseye by a small fraction.  Still, this is an impressive work of fantasy and worthy of high praise.  Walton has chiseled out a piece of writing that is honed and focused and near perfect.  Definitely worth a read.

Grade: B+

***Among Others is also the SFF World fantasy book of the month for March, 2012.  Stop by and join the conversaton!***


Niall Alexander said...

I really, really, really need to read this, clearly.

Right then. Taking in on holiday, be damned the five books I decided on already... and if I go over my luggage allowance, I'll have you know I hold you entirely accountable, sir!

Ryan said...

Well, I think it'll be worth it. This is a pretty special novel. And if going over your luggage allotment happens because you packed Among Others, I'm fine with taking the blame.

Aaron Vincent said...

This is one of my favourite book this year so far. It is such a unique and special novel. Unlike you I appreciate what Jo Walton did on the ending. There was really no huge epic battle between Mor and her mother. Being a novel told in journal entries, it is a very intimate reading experience and I think some big magical duel would just ruin the mood. I like how this book is understated and very few authors can show restraint like what Jo Walton have shown in this book.

This is also the one to blame for the damage that was done on my to-read pile. So far after finishing it, I've already read an Ursula Le Guin novel and a few Anne McCaffrey. I'm planning to read more. I've heard about these authors but Mor's enthusiasm is very contagious I couldn't help but bump their books up higher on the pile. Among Others is kind of like a Guide to Vintage SF. I would certainly offer this book to someone who asks for sf recommendations; you would not only get to recommend one book, but tons!

This is a very nice review. You've gained a new follower. :)

(Eep. Sorry for rambling on your blog. :))

Ryan said...

Aaron- Thanks for the comment! Don't worry about rambling, It's awesome you stopped by to share your thoughts.

I should clarify one thing: I didn't want a big showdown between Mor and her mom, I felt like the showdown we got was tacked on and not all that well executed. Still, the book was quite special.

Like you, I've also been buying up many of the books mentioned in Among Others. In the last couple days, I've probably added a dozen books to my to read pile...trouble!

I can't wait to check some of them out.