Discuss: Jo Walton's Among Others

(NOTE: Based on time elapsed since the posting of this entry, the BS-o-meter calculates this is 9.648% likely to be something that Ferrett now regrets.)

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.

10 Comments

  1. Tiffani
    Nov 16, 2011

    I read AO a couple of months ago while recovering from pneumonia, and it made me CRAZY. On the one hand, I loved reading about this geeky girl and her day-to-day stuff. I didnt read much SF as a kid, but she reminded me of me, always reading and excited about it, something that I seem to have lost recently.
    But…
    Im in the middle of a situation with my own writing where Im having a hard time (with something that I *have* to write for my future) because I cant see my way through to what the fantasy element in my novel IS. So my PhD supervisor has me thinking about liminal fantasy. But Ive decided that liminal fantasy bothers me because it feels as if (in some cases) the author isnt sure what s/he is writing. And then, as a reader, youre left holding this bag of sweets that may be MMs, may be rocks, may be those sour things youre not sure you like. And thats one thing that really bothered me about AO: we get to the end, and youre left wondering whether what happened *was* fantasy, or was just the results of a teenage girls fraught imagination.
    That her boyfriend sees these things can even be explained as either teenage imagination run amok or a boy doing what he thinks will make the girl he likes happy. And the showdown with her mom? NOT the big showdown with a vengeful witch but a moment with a sad, insane woman.
    I think it just bothers me that I dont know if the author meant for it to really and truly be read as fantasy, full of magic, or if she meant us to come away with these two readings. And that, in the end, makes me feel so tricked.

    • TheFerrett
      Nov 17, 2011

      I dunno. Personally, I never mind the “Is it real or isn’t it?” because that’s one of my hot-buttons, but I never really had that here. I bought it was real. I guess it could be made up, but I feel that if it was made up, then it would have a better and less rushed ending.
      I rather did like the fact that the Mom was sad and insane and ineffective in the end. That was a ice change of pace, because she had been defeated, and usually when you’re defeated you wind up lessened, not “I WILL RETURN STRONGER THAN EVER.” Napoleon’s an unusual case, so I liked the fact that Mor was actually taller than her Mom at the end.

  2. Kat
    Nov 16, 2011

    I actually blogged about this one. I found it a brilliant book, but was frustrated by the treatment of the magic – all of what was described as magic could well have been mundane strangeness, and while Mor was excellent at giving us clues as to how we should read others books, she wasnt very good at letting us know how we should read hers.

    • TheFerrett
      Nov 17, 2011

      See, I liked the ambiguity and the magic system a lot, but that’s because ambiguity’s one of my writer-kinks. I liked the way that magic could exist in this world and yet be entirely undiscovered, which is one of the worldbuilding things that drives me nuts. WHY IS MAGIC STILL A SECRET WHEN IT’S THAT BLATANT? So that, at least, hit my quirks.

  3. Fran W
    Nov 16, 2011

    Hi Ferrett – hmm. Keffy makes a good point about the book list. I was reading with a notepad beside me, marking books I hadnt read yet. But. But this is a book about a reader of books – and in that I totally bought into the lists and reactions and OMGZelazny because Ive done it and Ive heard other bookavores do it too.
    I loved Mors voice, and the very understated way that shes passing herself off under her sisters name. Im going to try to continue this without spoilers, bear with me.
    This is part of what drew me into the book – the events that precede the story arent ever stated outright. Were given pieces now and then, through the filter of the diary. Because this is a private diary, and those are things that go without saying in a private diary. I think the unsaid is a palpable part of Among Others, actually. And even when Mor describes what happened to a friend, its couched in filter language – shes giving him as much information as she thinks he can take.
    The diary structure really works for me, because the days become things that Mor passes through. The strangeness of her surroundings is couched in magic that she is starting to question the rules of, and the diary is part of how she figures it out, as well as being the story of her figuring it out. All of it is so finely liminal. And I mean that in the best sense. There are thresholds everywhere in the story, and choosing to pass through them is part of the tale. As is choosing to go home after being away, and the double alienation that creates – that sense of being stuck between two places.
    I think you are absolutely right with Strangely ambitious, and I would add subtle to that. This book practices subtlety as it plays with its structure – what Mor would write in a diary and what shed leave out. Shes a very private character, and her diary carries that through. Walton isnt writing Mors diary writing as if she (Mor) expects anyone else to read it. Thats an ambitious trick in itself.
    I need to go re-read the ending, because I didnt feel cheated by it, and I want to see if I can mark the change. I did notice things sped up, but I put that down to a relationship and excitement. The sequel question is interesting – I put the book down feeling like I wanted another, but also satisfied with the glimpse inside a very private world that I did get.
    Thanks for opening up the conversation.

    • TheFerrett
      Nov 17, 2011

      I don’t have much to say here except that I agree with you on all counts. I just wish the ending hadn’t been RAWR I FACE DOWN MY MOM IN A TORRENT OF WITCHY FIRE, but rather something more personal and diary-like. And that probably would have satisfied me, and few others, but it felt like the ending was a return to finish backstory, not the growth that she’s had with her Dad and the three witches and her boyfriend.
      I wish that had been the ending wrap-up instead of Mom, you know?

  4. Charlie O.
    Nov 16, 2011

    I really really liked AO. I won’t say too much because I’m writing a review.
    I found all the day-to-day stuff compelling. I loved how she handled fairy. I didn’t find anything tedious about the novel. The ending is tacked on and though exciting, it feels fake compared to rest of the novel. There’s not enough here about her past–the novel needs little Alice Munro moments, the succinct memory of three to four paragraphs that puts everything else into focus.
    I felt the first third was masterful and pitch perfect.

    • TheFerrett
      Nov 17, 2011

      Do me a favor and link me when you get the review up. I’d love to read it.
      I agree 100% about the ending. Your tolerance for tediousness, however, far exceeds mine.

      • Charlie O.
        Nov 18, 2011

        Ferrett,
        It’s not a tolerance for tediousness. It WAS NOT tedious. I read the book in a day. I found her daily striving among people and books to be of interest. For me the ideal climax would have been going to the worldcon and dealing with those crowds.
        Of course, to be fair to the naysayers, Walton and her protagonist are about five years younger than me. Their reading was essentially my reading, so the novel has a strong personal connection for me. For this reason, I asked April, my wife, to read it, since she had read a lot of the books, but they weren’t her coming of age experience as they were mine. She liked the book a lot, too.
        I think there are readers who need story to feel like story in a very up front way, and there are other readers who like the writers of quotidian life (as long as the quotidian is shaped subtly into story). I don’t now what you read when you don’t read genre, but there’s a rich fiction of the quotidian (and if you study it, you find the stories have definite shapes, definite things going wrong, and personally vital issues at stake), but to those who like immediate story, this quotidian fiction can appear tedious. I’ve come to the point where a lot of plot complications that are designed to interest me have become tedious. As you know, judging by your own fiction, a lot of the best plot complications come from within the character and their situation, not from the evil virus that the bad guy is about to release in the same city as the protagonist’s girl friend.

  5. Fran W
    Nov 17, 2011

    RAWR I FACE DOWN MY MOM IN A TORRENT OF WITCHY FIRE

    Hang on. I need to get the coffee off my monitor.
    Ok, I can see that. And I’d like to see that played out. I wanted the resolution with mom as well, though.

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