Now and then I come across a book that is a distillation of what I like in fiction, genre fiction in particular. I previously raved about Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell and then some people told me they think it's a load of ol' crap. It puzzled me a bit that some people don't see the greatness of the books I deemed to be great, but then I realize that such things probably puzzle most of us, we are all arbiters of good taste in our own little universe. So given that after reading this book you may not agree with my assessment of it (much to my astonishment) I am going into "rave mode" again.
Firstly I am going steal SF Signal's one sentence synopsis:
"A teenaged girl in 1979 deals with her witch of a mother, faeries, a difficult boarding school life, and the joys of discovering science fiction and fantasy."
Any mention of boarding school and fantasy in the same sentence will tend to trigger the name "Harry Potter" in people's minds, well you can fuggedaboudit, it's just an ordinary boarding school, no Defence Against the Dark Arts classes here. In fact, the setting of the boarding school resonates with me very much as a former pupil of such a school. It is a tough environment for geeky scifi reading type of kid that I was and Morweena, the protagonist and narrator of this book is. The loneliness, the bad food, the discovery of like minded friends all ring very true to me.
From the synopses of this book at Goodreads, Amazon etc. fantasy fans are probably unsure whether this really is a fantasy novel at all, and not just some rambling of a delusional girl. Well, the author has stated clearly in interviews that the fantasy element is not meant to be ambiguous, even if it may seem that way. You see, Jo Walton has done something very different with the so-called "magic system" trope here. In the universe of this book the magic is very discreet and always has "plausible deniability" in that the effect of the magic may look like normal coincidence. This makes the magic even more dangerous than in your average fantasy epic, the effect can be devastatingly wide ranging with everybody none the wiser about the cause. I am not going to give any example of this, it is really worth discovering by yourself.
The most important aspect of this book is that it is a love letter to science fiction and fantasy books, I have never seen so many books and authors mentioned in a single book and they are mostly books I am very familiar with. Like Asimov's Foundation, Delany's Babel 17, Tolkien's LOTR etc. At the time the story is set, in late 1979 and early 1980 fantasy was not the massively popular genre it is today and the fantasy books were far outnumbered by the sf books, so interestingly this book is actually about a science fiction reader in a fantasy world. Most of the books mentioned are scifi classics with only the odd LOTR and Narnia books thrown in. The little comments about the books and the love the author via her characters show for the books make me want to read sf/f until my eyes fall out.
The book is beautifully written in eloquent yet fairly simple prose in an epistolary format (diary entries), the characters are very well developed and believable. I can actually imagine what it feels like to be a teenage crippled girl in spite of my many disqualifications for identifying with such a character. As I understand it the story is partly autobiographical in that many of the key events are based on her own experiences as a teenager. I found the climax to be oddly conventional in its spectacularity and it does not seem to conform with the relative quietude of the preceding chapters. Still, no real harm done.
Jo Walton clearly loves the sf/f genre and reading in general with a passion, a feeling I share and this book is another one to be cherished.
A solid 5 stars for a well deserved 2011 Nebula Awards Winner.
Jo Walton's Q&A at Io9
Bibliography for Among Others
Jo Walton's The Big Idea article
Update, September 4, 2012
Among Others just won the 2012 Hugo Award for Best Novel, a few months prior to that it won the Nebula Award. It has also been nominated for the World Fantasy Award for Best Novel. That should be enough accolades for anyone considering reading this book!