Discuss: Jo Walton’s Among Others|
For a quite sedate story about a girl in a boarding school, Jo Walton’s Among Others is perhaps the most ambitious fantasy story I’ve seen written. I finished it yesterday, and I’m still not sure what I think of it.
The official story is this: “Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle for the fate of Earth that left her crippled – and her twin sister dead.”
The trick? Note that all that description is past tense.
The actual front-story is Morwenna, in a boarding school, writing her diary as she learns to adjust, nerds out about 1970s science fiction, and dates boys.
It’s as though Lord of the Rings was written from Frodo’s perspective post-Sauron in a journal where he discusses the local hobbit-gossip, frets about building the addition to his new hobbit-hole, and only occasionally reflects upon the fact that oh yeah, he saved the world.
The thing is, on one level the book is tedious. Morwenna is obsessed with science fiction books as only a nerd can be, and I’d say fully 7% of the book is devoted to witterings about OMG ZELAZNY and I just discovered Silverberg wrote this other series and my friend just gave me a book by an author called LeGuin, she’s brill. I grew up reading science fiction in the 1970s, and this book made me feel tragically underread.
(And as my friend Keffy notes, the danger of mentioning all these books is that you feel vaguely like you should be reading them instead of this one.)
But that tediousness makes the book feels very real – because in addition to her discussions of faeries and magic, there’s a lot of loose ends that never amount to anything at all. She comes from a big family stuffed with gossip, and there are a lot of things at the boarding school that just come and go. So it feels like a very real diary of a witch-girl who only occasionally discusses magic and almost never with the frenzy or enthusiasm that she does Tolkien. There’s a wealth to this world that’s just astounding.
I know others had problems getting through it, mainly because there’s a lack of an overarching PLOT – there is no basilisk attacking her school while she scrambles to open the chamber of secrets, just a girl slowly coming to insights. There’s progression, certainly, but no firm forward driving motion.
But I burned through it, because I found her voice compelling and I’m big on day-to-day revelations. Morwenna is not a popular girl but she is a smart one, so she’s unpopular in that rare sense you almost never see in books – not the shamed, spit-upon outcast, but a vaguely creepy girl with one or two close friends who gets picked on a fair amount but not enough to leave permanent scars.
The big problem with Among Others, for me, is the ending. I won’t spoil it (though I’m encouraging you to discuss it in the comments), but I will say that the ending really didn’t work for me. I was literally eight pages from the end of the book and going, “…is this series a trilogy?” when everything got wrapped and zapped.
And I felt ripped off. The book had been so personal, and moment-to-moment, that I felt it deserved kind of a quiet denouement, and instead it goes out of its way to wrap up that big, movie-star backstory it’s presented. It felt rushed and grafted on to me….
…or maybe it didn’t. I’m still sort of digesting that ending, and trying to come to terms with Among Others, because it is so strangely ambitious in an odd way. The only thing that’s coming to mind right now is the Kinks’ Village Green Preservation society, that late 1960s Rock Opera about the good old days of England and aren’t the hippies tearing down the good things with the bad and why can’t we just have a nice cup of tea? It’s ambitious in a way we don’t normally define ambitious, and so it’s hard for me to process.
And so I ask: if you read it, what did you think? What do you think of my reactions? I said on Twitter the other day that I wished I had a portable book discussion group, and people told me to post in my blog, they’d discuss it here.
So please. Do.
Cross-posted from Ferrett's Real Blog.
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Tags: books, reviews