Think of this as a memoir. Think of it as one of those memoirs that’s later discredited to everyone’s horror because the writer lied and is revealed to be a different colour, gender, class and creed from the way they’d made everybody think. I have the opposite problem. I have to keep fighting to stop making myself sound more normal. Fiction’s nice. Fiction lets you select and simplify. This isn’t a nice story, and this isn’t an easy story. But it is a story about fairies, so feel free to think of it as a fairy story. It’s not like you’d believe it anyway.
Among Others is a love letter to books and reading. It’s about the sheer joy and validation in finding people who are like you. Jo Walton thrills in the connectedness of the human experience, finding magic within the threads that bind us all together. This is a cozy, warm tale about finding your home after tragedy. It is not the trip to Mordor; it is the Scouring of the Shire. The Chosen Ones have already won, and the world is saved… so now, it’s time to live.
Jo Walton’s writing is slow, meandering, and filled with love. It’s important to understand before diving in that this is not a book about plot or action; it’s a slow, reminiscent story about a young girl who is learning how to live in a normal life in the wake of tragedy. Mori’s mother was out to abuse the magic of the fairies to create a world that revolved around her as queen. Mori and her twin sister, Mor, stopped her. The price was high: Mor was killed, and Mori was permanently maimed. She walks with a cane and a special shoe, both of which set her apart from the other girls her age.
They didn’t mean to totally humiliate me as they clucked over the shoes and me and my built-up sole. I had to remind myself of that as I stood there like a rock, a little painful half-smile on my face. They wanted to ask what’s wrong with my leg, but I outfaced them and they didn’t quite dare. This, and seeing it, cheered me up a little. They gave in on the shoes, and said the school would just have to understand. “It’s not as if my shoes were red and glamorous,” I said. That was a mistake, because then they all stared at my shoes. They are cripple shoes. I had a choice of one pattern of ladies’ cripple shoes, black or brown, and they are black. My cane’s wooden. It used to belong to Grampar, who is still alive, who is in hospital, who is trying to get better. If he gets better, I might be able to go home. It’s not likely, considering everything, but it’s all the hope I have.
When Mori is plucked from the Welsh countryside and sent off to live with her father and his three sisters in the city, she has little idea of what to anticipate. She’s expecting the worst, of course – they’re strangers to her. Her fears are confirmed when they ship her off to a boarding school. Prior to leaving, however, she does find one small glimmer of hope. Her father’s library is filled with the one thing that has always brought her joy in life: science fiction and fantasy. They chat about LeGuin, Vonnegut, and McCaffrey; Niven, Tolkein and Clarke. These are the interests she’s had forever, but has never had anyone other than her sister to talk about them with. Now that her sister is gone, she has no one.
One Goodreads user very kindly put together a list of all the books mentioned in Among Others – if you’ve ever been wanting a list of “must read” classic science fiction and fantasy, I don’t think you could really go wrong with it. It’s missing quite a few women, but I think that’s more due to the biases at the time and Walton’s own reading journey than it is malicious. This is a book that bares a soul, not a book that seeks to be a perfect representation. If you’re interested in something a bit more analytical, Walton has also written An Informal History of the Hugos, which goes into much more depth on the history of SF&F. Although Among Others contains many references to older SF&F, it is absolutely not necessary as a reader that you have more than a surface knowledge of these books. This book is not about the books themselves, but about the sheer happiness and joy of reading and loving stories.
It doesn’t matter. I have books, new books, and I can bear anything as long as there are books.
While Mori has always loved books and stories, the fairies have always been fact rather than fiction to her. She is firmly convinced that Tolkien knew of the fairies, and took inspiration from them when he created his elves. When Mori first meets the fairies, it’s a little unclear to the reader whether or not the entirely exist. Is the magic they perform truly magic, or merely coincidence? As the story continues, however, it becomes clear that they very much do, and that magic is very much a part of the fabric of the world. Much like people and society, magic relies on connections in order to function. An apple is connected to the tree, a favorite dress knows it’s wearer and knows it’s the favorite, an heirloom spoon revels in the knowledge that it is the oldest and most prized in the household. These connections can be used to pinch reality and reorganize events in such a way that the desired result will come about. Although Mori has a basic understanding of magic – perhaps more knowledge than she realizes, in fact – she tends to be reluctant to perform magic without the guidance of the fairies.
Walton’s fairies are not your traditional tiny pixies. Often, they are scarcely humanoid; they are more akin to elementals, in many ways. They pull together bits and bobs of nature to create themselves. If “nature” as a whole exists as a noun, then they are the thinking, feeling verbs that can provide a purpose to the sentences and paragraphs of the world. However, a verb on its own can only convey so much… and such is the limitation of dealing with fairies. While they understand language well, they struggle to speak in a way that is comprehensible to mortals. Their words are broken action items, implying but never truly explaining. Their goals and ideas are different from those of humans, and although they are not malevolent, the risk of misunderstandings is high.
Mor didn’t want to play. “Do you really think this will work?”
“The fairies were sure of it,” I said, as reassuringly as possible.
“I know, but sometimes I don’t know how much they understand about the real world.”
“Their world is real,” I protested. “Just in a different way. At a different angle.”
“Yes.” She was still staring at the Phurnacite, which was getting bigger and scarier as we approached. “But I don’t know how much they understand about the angle of the every day world. And this is definitely in that world. The trees are dead. There isn’t a fairy for miles.”
This is especially difficult to balance when determining whether it’s appropriate to perform magic. Mori often struggles with determining whether it’s ethical to force a connection between people. Her worst fear is becoming like her mother and creating a connection that will make her into the new villain of the story. She does not wish for the people around her to become mere puppets to her will. When she performs magic asking for a karass (a group of connected, like-minded people) to support her, she is actively afraid of what she has done. She feels selfish, wrong. Would these people have been her friends in the normal course of things? And if not, are they truly her friends now, or are they merely marionettes she has manipulated into a false semblance of friendship through magic? Is this a true, real connection… or is it a perversion of the natural order?
These themes and others flow naturally throughout the story, which in some ways is not much of a story at all. Until the final few pages, there’s not really much plot at all. This is a book that resonated with me – I saw myself in Mori at every page, and I loved her for it. I felt understood and validated and even loved by this book. In so many places, even in the darker portions, I found myself reflected and seen in a way that warmed my soul. If you have been raised on books, if you have struggled to fit in, this book will pull you into its embrace and validate you.