I haven’t read any of Jo Walton’s other books, but I probably will now. I don’t even know how Among Others blipped across my radar because I’m usually oblivious about the Hugos and Nebulas and general talk in the sci-fi/fantasy world. If I don’t see it on Twitter, it’s like it didn’t happen. If you like your books to come with credentials, Among Others definitely has them: in 2012 it won the Hugo, Nebula, British Fantasy Award, the Romantic Times Reviewer’s Choice Award, and the Copper Cylinder Award. Additionally, it was nominated for the World Fantasy and Mythopoeic awards, but I didn’t know any of that before reading it. I didn’t know any of it until ten minutes before I started writing this recommendation. This is all to say that I knew nothing about the book when I read it or decided to recommend it, which I sometimes think is a good thing and that I’m absolutely ruining for you right now. So sorry, dear reader.
On her website, Walton says the following about Among Others:
The way I like to describe it is that it’s about a science fiction reader who has fantasy problems. It’s 1979, she’s fifteen, she’s just saved the world from her evil mother at great cost, the world doesn’t know and doesn’t care and she has to go to boarding school. All she wants to do is read Ursula Le Guin and Samuel Delany and Poul Anderson and James Tiptree Jr and and and and… but her mother is still out there and so are the fairies. It’s semi-autobiographical. It was odd to write for that reason, and also publishing it was odd. While some people hate it, the overwhelming response to Among Others is for readers to identify strongly with the protagonist. One does not expect to discover in one’s forties that one is less odd than one had always supposed oneself — but it seems that I’d written about a quite common fannish coming-of-age experience of having books instead of people for friends and solace. Well, there we are then. Lots of us, apparently.
I think this is an almost perfect description of the book, though I would add: This book is a book for people who love sci-fi. Because I don’t love sci-fi the way Mori (the main character) does, some of it was lost on me. In fact, to really understand everything that happens in Among Others, I think I’d like to read it again, maybe having read some of the books that Mori loves. But even if you haven’t read the books that Mori mentions, if you love books, you’ll be able to strongly identify with her as a narrator.
I love that Mori’s narration, up ‘til the end feels precarious and unreliable. I love that I questioned her and the “reality” of her situation over and over again. I believed her, then I didn’t, then I believed her again, then I really didn’t and so on ‘til I understood once and for all what all that unreliability was actually about. If you read this you’ll see what I’m talking about; from the very beginning Mori’s narration seems off. At first I thought it was because we’re reading her diary, or memoir as she names it. As time wore on, I wondered if she was telling the truth about fairies. So many fairy narratives, set firmly in the real world are about mental illness and/or lies. And there’s certainly plenty of mental illness to go around in this book.
That part was complicated for me. I feel like there are so many ways in which we characterize mental illness as a manifestation of evil and paint the “mentally ill” with a broad, ugly brush. There is an ugly stereotype that this book, in one way, perpetuates: the insanely destructive witch. In another way, some mentally ill people certainly have the capacity to harm others, especially their children. I think when I understood that this part of the book was semi-autobiographical it made more sense to me. Walton isn’t using an ugly stereotype to characterize Mori’s mother, she’s drawing on her own experience. I recommend reading this livejournal post that inspired Among Others after you read the book, but if you’re concerned about this aspect, perhaps reading it before would help you. Definitely do not read the Q and A from Walton’s website about the novel until after or you will completely ruin your experience.
What makes this book so good, and why I would recommend it, is that it is an expression of how we all feel deep inside ourselves that we are special and different. When we are teenagers, we often believe that no one could possibly understand the ways in which we are different from everyone else and when we’re adults we learn to pretend we no longer feel this way. Anyone with a deep imagination and rich inner life knows this is an act. We all feel that we’re different from others until the day we die, I think.
Any book in which there is a first-person narrator will highlight what incredibly subjective creatures we are. Because when you’ve purposely invited someone else to sit inside your head for hours at a time, speaking, you can hardly avoid interjecting your own bias and experience. Among Others is brilliant from that perspective, because Mori’s voice is so relatable for those of us who grew up with big imaginations and as Walton puts it, books for friends. This book captures the idea that yes, we are all special and different, but in that we find we’re the same.
Allison Carr Waechter has always had books for friends, especially in moments when she couldn’t relate to people. Shout at her on Twitter if you want to commiserate.