There are the books you want to give all your friends, and there are the books you wish you could go back and give your younger self. And then there's the rare book, like Jo Walton's Among Others, that's both.
Among Others, out this week from Tor Books, is one of those hard-to-categorize books that makes sense once you start reading it. It's a coming-of-age novel, with what appears to be a healthy dose of memoir mixed in, but there's also a whole fantasy world that the protagonist, a young Welsh girl named Morwenna, visits. (It's sort of like Pan's Labyrinth — the fantasy world that Morwenna spends a lot of time in could be real, imaginary, or just sort of metaphorical, but it's important either way.)
But then there's the third, equally important, component of the book — the main character's musings about science fiction and fantasy books, which help to illuminate some of the classics of the genre but also show how the love of SF literature can help to save you from a life of isolation or terminal weirdness.
Jo Walton has been an indispensible commentator on SF literature for ages now — I remember being captivated by her posts back when I lurked on rec.arts.sf.written and the other Usenet groups back in the 1990s. And more recently, Walton has been an illuminating presence over at Tor.com. Now, with Among Others, she has created a beautiful paean to reading works of the imagination, filtered through the consciousness of a teenage girl in 1979. As the narrator says late in the book, "If you love books enough, books will love you back."
At the same time, Among Others isn't your typical coming-of-age story — in large part because Morwenna isn't your typical young protagonist. She's a nerdy introvert, one of those people who looks back on everything as if it were in the past, even while it's happening. She views everything that happens to her through the lens of her voluminous science fiction book collection, and years of tearing through the works of the SF masters has left her acutely aware just how much of our "real" world is arbitrary and just one way of looking at things. She almost doesn't need to be able to see fairies to realize there's more to the world than other people notice.
The book starts with tragedy — Morwenna's twin sister dies and Morwenna herself is badly injured, in an incident that we only learn about slowly throughout the book. Morwenna runs away from her mother, who's either an evil witch or just a crazy person depending on how you view things. And she ends up staying with her father, a science fiction nerd whom she's never met, and her aunts — who are evil, but not as evil as her mom. They send her to a boarding school, where she discovers peer pressure and snobbery first-hand, but she also learns to be more self-reliant.
Any one of the things that Among Others does well would be enough to make it a must-read: there's the keen observation of the hypocrisies and weirdness of British society on the eve of Thatcher. There's the deft depiction of what it's like to be disabled around people who are at best clueless, at worst malicious. There's the intense book discussion, and the sheer joy of getting new books and discovering new authors and being passionate about the written word. And then there's the fantasy quest, which manages to be less glamorized and more murky than most fantasy — and yet, perhaps for that reason, more exciting.
When I read a book I'm going to review, I dog-ear pages I might want to refer to or quote from, and my copy of Among Others is pretty much disfigured with a mass of bent-back pages.
Some of it just because the writing is so lovely, like this passage where Morwenna travels to a far-off place to do some magic under the guidance of a fairy whom she calls Glorfindel:
The sun was sinking behind the hill we were sitting on, but it wasn't really set yet; in the next valley it was still full daylight. But I suppose there's always a next valley, all the way around the world until you get to tomorrow. Our shadows were very long. Glorfindel got up and told me to scatter the leaves in a spiral through the maze, ending at the two rowan trees. I did, and then I sat and waited as the light faded. I wasn't sure if I was going to see anything, or whether it would be one of those times when I do what I've been told and it makes no sense and I never know whether it worked or what it did. The sky faded until it got to that point where there's no colour left in anything but it isn't dark.
And that passage also shows off the murkiness of the magic in this book, and the extent to which it always remains mysterious and at the edges of Morwenna's world, not gadgety and all-transforming as it so often is in books. (You can read a nice excerpt from the book here.)
The forces of conformity and social pressure in Morwenna's world are also the things that seem to want to detach her from magic — because magic is strange and old and unnatural. And the unmagical stuff in her life is institutional and mass-produced and dire — like eating food that you don't have any connection with growing or cooking, in a cafeteria. Or staying in new, sterile buildings instead of the old, half-wild places the fairies prefer. Walton never belabors the dichotomy between conformity and magic, but it's always there, lurking in the background.
And as the book goes on, Morwenna faces choices about how to handle magic — which are really, in a way, choices about how to handle the transition to adulthood. Should she give up on magic, or give herself to it more fully and use it to control the universe to her advantage? The idea that you can use magic to sway reality to your wishes, like creating the group of friends you wish you had, leads to the danger of becoming of reality-warping quasi-god like George Orr in Le Guin's The Lathe of Heaven. And more to the point, it leads to the danger of becoming a monster, like Morwenna's mother.
I'd definitely recommend Among Others to anybody who had that quintessential experience of growing up a bit different, or seeing the frame of reality cropped a bit differently than other people. It's definitely a book that book nerds will identify with, and love. But it's also a great book for anyone who loves coming-of-age stories that shed light on the nature of adulthood — and it's a great survival manual for anyone who's still dealing with the pain of being a bit out-of-step with the rest of the world, either literally or figuratively.
And without giving too much away, even though Among Others is a mostly very gentle book, it does have a thunderingly powerful ending in which all of the magical events turn out to have been leading up to something quite different than you'd expected — and Morwenna has to make some choices she didn't expect to make. It's one of those endings that makes the whole journey leading up to it seem that much more worthwhile.