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Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Review: Among Others

Every so often, you run across a novel so sublime and brilliantly written that you want to go out and recommend it to everyone you know who loves books. Among Others is just such a novel.

The novel is clearly autobiographical in many areas, as anyone who's met Jo Walton (as I did during last year's WorldCon) might guess. But it's clearly fictional as well.

The first thing that Walton does is to turn the typical fantasy story upside down by having all the important fantastical events happen prior to the start of the novel. The protagonist has already saved the world. Now she's dealing with the aftermath and consequences of her prior actions: she'd lost her twin sister, she's made enemies out of her mother (a witch who tried to take over the world), and one of her legs is crippled, forcing her to walk with a cane. She now has to be cared for by a father who abandoned her as a child, attend a boarding school, and is in general ripped away from her previous life.

All that she has left is books. And of course, like Jo Walton (and hopefully many readers of this blog), she's a science fiction and fantasy fan, having grown up with Dying Inside, Heinlein, Asimov's, and of course Tolkein. Walton does a great job of in-cluing readers so that even if you haven't read all the novels mentioned in this novel (and you'd have to be incredibly well read to have read all of them), you will have a good understanding of what the novels are about and what the highlights of the authors' writing style is. Walton is an extremely well-read book critic, and her taste and sensibility and ability to summarize say, The first four Amber books in succinct phrases that resonate with the reader serves her well here.

Yes, it's a teenage coming of age novel, but unlike popular teenager novels nowadays, this book could be described almost as the perfect antidote to Twilight and others of its ilk. The heroine/protagonist doesn't do anything stupid, is incredibly level headed about love and sex, but the author also takes care to bring you the subtle nuances of what it means to be a girl in an English boarding school, with all the intrigues and pointless shaming. However, since the protagonist had already done so much with her life, she doesn't succumb to typical high school angst. When she acquires a boyfriend, she does so with no drama, though there might have been a little magic involved.

Yes, there's magic in the book, and fairies. But it's done in a very subtle fashion, very appropriate to the setting of an English boarding school. There's nothing flashy about it, and how magic goes about its business isn't obvious.

This is a slow paced book, similar to Crossing to Safety, and it is a testament to Walton's skill that the reader does not feel the slow pace at all. When the climax comes, it sneaks up on you, and when you see how the protagonist resolves it the thematic fit and elegance almost hits you in the head, which would be a little too much for any other novel, but works very well in this one.

If you enjoy novels, especially science fiction and fantasy of the era (the book is set in the late 1970s), then you owe it to yourself to read this book. It really is a trip and if not the best novel I've read this year, pretty darn close.

Highly recommended


Tom Galloway said...

I dunno. I'd argue (possible spoiler, in the sense of the overall theme/meaning of the book and the way one might look at a number of scenes in the book, after space)

...that this might actually be a completely mundane book. Remember, it's all first person narration, and I'm far from convinced we have a reliable narrator. I could read the book both as her having a very subtle magic or as her suffering from multiple delusions and PTSD. Heck, I'm not even sure the twin sister existed...and there's a line or two, not really followed up from what I could tell, that seemed to state that the protagonist took over her twin's name when the twin was killed and everyone thinks the protagonist was who died. Which is a "Huh, what?" action that makes me doubt the narrator.

Piaw Na said...

That's a good alternative interpretation, and of course, the unreliable narrator's always a great device. It's a great book that can work on multiple levels.

bawa said...

Ok, you sold one! I don't think I have gone wrong on any recommendation of yours so far, in fact there have been a couple that I liked more than you :) (in the sense that I did not agree with the negative comments.

bawa said...

You just sold one! I have never gone wrong on your recommendations, so will get this one.

My one gripe now that I have kindle is that why is the kindle edition twice the price of a New Hardback edition? Its just crazy and it is stopping me from pressing that buy button.

Aaron Fuegi said...

FWIW, Walton has said pretty explicitly that the book/world does include fantastical elements; it is not intended to be a untrustworthy narator. Obviously, you can take this or leave it as many feel a book should stand apart from the author's intent.

I didn't like this nearly as much as you for whatever reason. Worth reading but only good for me.

Piaw Na said...

On Amazon, the Kindle edition is $9.99 but the paperback is $10.19. I don't think that's insanely stupid.

I agree that books should stand apart from the author's intent.

bawa said...

When I first tried to buy it, Amazon UK had Kindle edition at nearly 10 pounds and a hardback at 4 pounds something...
Hence my comment. This has happened to me a a few times. e.g. with Reginald Hill books.

The pricing seems to be different in Europe compared to Just seems weird, because I thought the whole point of having a digital format was that such things as location/transport would get equalised.

Anyway, I have just read it in one go, and I thoroughly enjoyed it and agree with your review. So thanks for the recommendation!

Piaw Na said...

I have no idea why the Amazon UK Kindle edition was so different. I don't think digital formats naturally provide uniform pricing, at least for books. That's up to the publishers, though if you've seen the lawsuit going on right now between the Department of Justice and Apple, you'll see what I mean.

In any case, I'm glad you enjoyed the book!