Review: Among Others / Author: Jo Walton / Publisher: Corsair / Release Date: Out Now
Fifteen year-old Mor Phelp's life has been turned upside down. After a magical battle with her evil witch-queen mother that has left her twin sister dead and Mor disabled, she flees her Welsh home town and reunites with her estranged father and his sisters. Who promptly send her off to an all-girl boarding school near the Welsh border, where she must learn to cope with being an outsider in a hostile environment while protecting herself from her insane mother.
You could be forgiven for thinking that Among Others sounds a little like Harry Potter in reverse. But actually it's nothing like it, or anything else either for that matter. For starters, there's nary an exciting wizard battle or miraculous escape in sight. It takes the form of Mor's diary over a period of around 18 months in 1979 and '80, and predominately deals with Mor's love of the science fiction novels of the time, and how they gave her an escape from the depressing reality of her life. What this means is that you get page after page of Mor's thoughts on the books that she reads, how she perceives the characters and how they compare to other novels in the genre. A coming of age story provides a modicum of structure – initially an outsider because of her strong Welsh accent and disability, Mor eventually forms friendships with like-minded individuals at the local library and ends up with a sci-fi loving boyfriend. But truth be told, the vast majority of the book could have simply been an edited version of the author's own childhood diaries.
Then there are the supernatural bits. Which, as described within the book, are so subtle that they could have be said never to have happened at all, begging the question – does Mor really see fairies and work magic, or is it just a figment of her rather fertile imagination? This also extends to the character of Mor's mother. She could be an evil witch; however, she could just as easily be a woman with mental health problems who abuses her daughters. At times, the mystical elements feel like something that has been tacked on, to push the story from straightforward literary/semi-autobiographical fiction into genre.
That is not to say that Among Others is bad. Far from it. Despite the slow start, where the reader is likely to skip over the pages describing Mor's extended family, or roll their eyes at yet another discussion of a 1960s science fiction novel, the story becomes quite compelling and thought-provoking. The author's love for these books shines through, and her enthusiasm proves to be quite infectious. Similarly, Walton does a fantastic job of peeling the layers of Mor's mind, so that by the end of the novel she comes across as very much a real person that the reader is emotionally invested in.
Among Others won't be for everyone. It's not a traditional fantasy novel by any stretch of the imagination. However, for anyone looking for something a little different, Among Others is a captivating read that will stay with you for quite some time after you turn the final page.