summer book exchange #3: Among Others

No matter what else transpires in this review, or even in this book, you must remember this one thing, for it may someday save your life:

“If you love books enough, books will love you back.”

photoAmong Others, by Joe Walton (2010)

This book was sent to me by a guitar buddy, Tom, who is himself an author. He graciously gives me credit for turning him on to Heinlein. I’m very much looking forward to reading Tom’s own novel someday, hopefully someday soon.

Here’s the short strokes of Among Others.

Teenage girl suffers personal, family and physical trauma, survives, suffers, grows, perseveres, and triumphs.

Now for the long version.

Morwenna Phelps/Markova is her name, and she LOVES books. Or rather, I should say, the author’s love of science fiction books is weaved throughout Mori’s narrative. The one truly negative thing I have to say about this book is wrapped up in the constant listing of sci-fi (or SF, as Mori refers to the genre) books, series and authors that permeates the story.

It’s annoying. It’s oppressive. It’s right on the verge of literary bullying.

I can live with it, though, because the rest of the story is that good.

I know, I know, you’re thinking, “Is he really telling me a story about a crippled 15-year-old girl who sees and talks to fairies and whose mother is a witch (a real, ugly inside and out, wart-on-the-nose witch) that she has to battle – twice – is a ‘good story’?” Yes, gentle reader, yes I am.

I’m always wary of throwing down spoilers, but the journal-entry style of the book lays things bare in such a methodical fashion that you’re unlikely to be surprised by anything that happens. Morwenna is half of a set of magic-sensitive twins; her sister is tragically killed in a confrontation with their mother. This much is revealed on the back cover of the book, by the way.

If you’ve ever read a book written about a 15-year-old girl, let alone BY one (as this one truly feels like it was), you already know some of the other things that are going to happen. Raised by her mother’s extended family, she runs away to escape the wrath of her mother and the reminders of her dead sister; she ends up in the care of her estranged father, who ran away himself when the girls were babies. She’s sent to boarding school, where she’s marginalized as an outsider because of her Welsh accent, standoffish personality, and perhaps most especially, her deep, devoted love of reading (mostly sci-fi). The only place she truly feels comfortable is in the library, the only people she trusts – as much as she can trust anybody – are fellow SF fanatics.

The girls at the boarding school treat her poorly. The school’s food sucks. She loses touch with her friends from back home. Her mother attacks her at night with magic whenever she gets the chance – you know, typical English boarding school stuff.

Though Mori is a big SF fan, this book is actually fantasy, not SF. I’m not the biggest fantasy fan, though I do have my moments. One of the biggest fantasy series – perhaps at this point, THE biggest – is the tale of Harry Potter. I’ve read parts of 3 or 4 of those books, and I have to say I hated them. A lot.

This book about magic, though, I really liked. In Mori’s world (which spans September 1979 to May 1980, with a little dip into 1975), magic is mostly subtle, unexperienced by most people. Her introduction to it is through fairies; she and her sister see, talk to and play with fairies as children. The fairies help them, and Mori helps the fairies when she can, especially in one very touching scene. We learn, however, that the fairies are not entirely benign, and in the story’s double climax, she has to stand up to them in a way that is difficult for her.

Magic, then, so much a part of Mori’s consciousness, is merely a background element for 98% of the book; this is so unlike Harry Potter’s world, where magic pummels the reader at every turn. In Harry’s world, magical objects are fantastical! They’re everywhere! People fight, die and kill over them! In Mori’s world, magical objects are things like stones she keeps in her pocket and kitchen spoons that get lovingly used over the years. The one truly magical object in the entire story is a cane the fairies give her.

Mori needs a cane; her hip was smashed in the car crash that claimed her sister’s life. Mori’s handicap is one of many things that sets her apart from the girls in her school, but it’s not the most significant thing.

What I liked most about the story was the subtlety of the magic. Nothing truly, thoroughly magical happens until the second climax, when Mori is forced to fight her mother again. Even though it’s the story’s one scene of true violence, it’s done quite pastorally – not passively, by any stretch of the imagination, but not with the swing of a sword and a fiery spurt of blood. Indeed, Mori would have found such an instance to be vulgar. Instead, she uses her magic and her love of books to overcome, and bingo, we know that’s the happy ending. She walks (er, limps) into the gathering moonlight with her recent boyfriend and her un-estranged father, safe from the fairies and her mother and her past forever.

The (double) climax seems a  bit rushed, though, but it’s done well.  The story builds so slowly, so cleanly, that when it’s time for Mori to at last face her mother (again), it feels like it happens very all-of-a-sudden, and it seems a little out of place for such a languorously paced story.

My favorite little tidbit was toward the end, when Mori comes upon a freshly-released Heinlein paperback, The Number of the Beast.  Not one of Heinlein’s greatest hits, but a decent book, and I remember buying my first copy of it when I was about Morwenna’s age.  My least favorite part was a long scene where Mori spent time in the hospital having her leg rather incompetently dealt with; that part hits a little too close to home (though my doctors were eminently competent, I promise!).

This was a really good book. Very little violence. There are some frank passages (remember, the story is told as a series of diary entries) and short scenes (including a drunken, groping teenage make out session) of solo, hetero and homosexual activity (or near activity, at any rate). Mori’s father chain smokes and drinks.

I’d say this book is appropriate for anybody over about 13 or 14 years old that likes stories about fairies, magic, and teenage girls in a coming-of-age environment.

Naturally, somebody combed through and listed all 168 books mentioned in this book, and that list is on GoodReads.  168 books in 283 pages is 1.7 books mentioned per page.  I told you it was oppressive! I’ve read just 26 of them.