Jo Walton’s Among Others is a book I would not have picked up except for its being nominated for Best Novel, and for my determination to vote responsibly this year, and read the categories I intend to vote for. I’m pushing. And, I’m ignoring a bunch of worthy not-nominated or new books to get this done.
Without this push of a deadline, without this desire to read all nominated books and stories, I fall back back on other methods of deciding what to read next, and what to eliminate, and that is to judge a book by its blurb. Judging by the blurb, sad to say, sees me falling back on preconceptions, prejudices, and misunderstanding of intent. In the case of Among Others, these prejudices, etc., would include the following:
- I don’t like fairies
- I think I’ve read enough coming-of-age stuff
- I think I’ve read enough YA for a while
The first one is a genre thing. I would have said (did say) something similar about Seanan McGuire’s zombies, and did about Lois McMaster Bujold’s “military” science fiction. I avoided Bujold because for years because of the “military” label. I would not have read Mira Grant except that my daughter made me. So many times I have been burned by genre labels. The genre tag turns out, once again, to be a horrible guide to book selection. Always seek more information, that’s my motto from now on, because I am very glad to have read this book.
The second prejudice is more a matter of mood, because I like coming-of-age tales. It is the tale that every single one of us can tell. We all have our own coming-of-age story, and I believe every single one of us has a good one in us, whether we have the skill to write it or not. So I can always relate, no matter what. The trouble, for the coming-of-age tale, is that its universality makes it difficult for it to stand out, even if it’s not autobiographical, and even if it’s fantasy. Among Others does stand out, mainly for the author’s confidence and her understated approach to the supernatural.
As for YA objection, I’m old, and I really do need to read mostly grown-up books. I just do.
My prejudices and mood issues, in this case, were easily overcome by the engaging voice of the first-person narrator, Mor (or Mori), age 15, who is being shipped off to an English boarding school by her father (whom she has only just met), and (more ominously) by her father’s two sisters, for whom, at best, Mor is an unexpected intrusion in their tidy world. Mor has come into their lives because of an incident that left her twin sister (also nicknamed Mor, or Mori) dead, and herself crippled. That incident had to do with their mother, who is mentally ill or evil or both, and it had to do with fairies, whom Morganna and Morwenna played with and spoke with regularly as children, in their native southern Wales. The fairy element is kept on a low simmer; the fairies don’t do all that much. They barely speak, but when they do, it counts.
Mor is a voracious reader, and she constantly refers to book titles and authors. She tells us about every book she reads, every book she has ever read, and she reads about twenty-five books a week. I would have thought this all-over-the-place constant name-dropping of book titles and authors would be annoying and distracting, but it works. It is integral to the character and her relationships. It is how she connects with her estranged dad, her grandfather Sam, two sympathetic librarians (librarian-heroes, love it!), and the “karass” she eventually hooks up with. This book name-dropping also works as an example of the rule I would call Way Too Much Is Better Than A Little Too Much. For instance, if Vidal Sassoon had made his asymmetrical haircuts only a little uneven, we would have assumed he had made a sad mistake. Because he made them very uneven, we know he did it on purpose. This book name-dropping is completely intentional, and it works confidently and beautifully.
I did find the ending abrupt. I don’t need every little last question answered, but I would have liked to be left with a little more insight into Mor’s mother. Mor has a touch of the unreliable narrator to her–not a bad thing–but she can leave the reader a bit wobbly on what is actually going on here.
This is a very, very good book, in a strong novel category. I know which one still tops my list, but I’ll wait until reading the last one to decide for certain.