Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Among Others - Jo Walton

I don’t really know where to start with this book. I read it, and had to put it aside for a few days to fully process it before I could even contemplate reviewing it. The book is…different. In some respects subtle might be a good word for it. 

Among Others is written as a sort of memoir, but with journal entries written by a fifteen-year-old girl in the late 70’s in England. I’m not a big fan of teenagers, nor am I a big fan of journal entries but for this one it worked. The main character is incredibly mature for a fifteen-year-old, though there were points where her youth and teenage angst did peek through the narrative; it was, by and large, kept minimal.

Walton manages to pull off something that really usually annoys me in such a way that really works for this book without being annoying. The character has obvious secrets. These secrets end up being incredibly important to character development and background, but Walton doesn’t reveal this information all in one lump. Instead it’s hinted at and slowly revealed throughout the narrative like pieces of a puzzle. It isn’t until the last fourth of the book that the character actually openly talks about all of the events in her journal which lead her to that point in her life. While, in retrospect, I realize that the author does lead the reader along by doing this (which is what usually annoys me), she does it in such a classy, subtle way that it doesn’t bother me in this book. Instead, it seems almost like a benefit to the story. If all had been revealed in the beginning the book would have been far less exciting and there would have been nearly no reason for me to read it.

Walton’s writing is fluid and almost lyrical. She’s amazingly descriptive to the point where the world seems to leap off the pages and wrap around the reader. If I can’t believe that a fifteen-year-old would actually write like that, I could also comfortably say that I probably would never read a book a fifteen-year-old had written so it works and it’s a blessing to the book as a whole.

I almost felt like a voyeur while reading Among Others. There are aspects of fantasy which make this book an urban fantasy, but by and large most of the book is spent reading about a gawky fifteen-year-old girl as she tries to heal from a traumatic past and figure out her place in the world. There were parts of the book which seemed so realistically personal that I felt awkward reading the passages. Most of the book I was wondering what the point was besides a fascination with the character’s life and her endless diatribe of fantastic books which I have, in turn, added to my pile of books I must read (Thanks, Jo Walton, for plumping up my to-be-read list).

Among Others isn’t an action packed book. It’s more of a subtle character study. In truth, there isn’t a lot that happens here, but Walton’s writing and the voyeur aspect I mentioned above work well together to insure that most readers (who don’t mind slower paced, more subtle books) will find themselves sucked into the story and unable to leave it until the ending, which cleanly leads me to my main complaint.

The back of the book discusses a reckoning the main character will have with her mother, but in truth this reckoning was fairly anticlimactic, short and almost unnecessary to the overall plot. I actually felt, when I read it, that it was incredibly out of place in the book. It seemed to break the overall flow of Among Others in a way that bothered me. It’s like floating down a calm river, taking in the scenery and all the sudden you hit a bunch of pointless rapids. It does add some action to the book, and it is, I guess, important to the plot but not absolutely necessary. 

Another minor complaint I had was with the narrative at certain points. The character remains almost impossibly calm during much of it. If something catastrophic happens, she begins the diary entry in the same way she begins it if the day was absolutely terrible. It doesn’t really ring true to human nature, but this is a book and I can forgive that.

This is also an aside for those United States readers who may be as ignorant regarding these details as I am. This book does, at some points, go rather in depth regarding the school system in the UK, which made next to no sense to me. I skimmed those parts because honestly, fourth form, upper fifth whatever made about as much sense to me as reading a book written in Japanese. The character is fifteen, and during those parts where she’s talking about forms and A and O levels and whatever else she talks about, I had to just remind myself that “she’s fifteen, which means she’d be in 9th or 10th grade” over and over again.

Also, the beginning of the book does slightly become bogged down with excessive details regarding the character’s family history, aunts and uncles. While it is interesting, it has very minor and incredibly subtle importance to the overall story and can easily be skipped. Some readers will enjoy the background given; some (like me) might find it a moderately annoying speed bump in the overall flow of events. Regardless, the story does move on after some of those hiccups at the start of the book.

Among Others was oddly delightful to read. It’s not a book that would usually connect with me, so enjoying it was quite a surprise. Walton’s writing is lyrical, descriptive and flowing, which makes reading about the life of a fifteen-year-old girl a voyeuristic joy. This is made easier with a compelling  character who is easy to care about and relate to through her raw emotion and growing pains. If the epic reckoning discussed on the back didn’t seem like an absolutely necessary addition to the book and some points of the narrative didn’t exactly seem logical to the tone of events being discussed, it’s easy to overlook. This book is amazingly character driven and is, probably, the first book that can appeal to both young adult and adult readers that didn’t annoy me with its young adult qualities. In closing I will say, if you read Elfland by Freda Warrington and enjoyed it, you’ll probably enjoy Among Others.

4/5 stars

P.S. Thanks to Tor for sending me an ARC of this book, which will be on shelves in January 18, 2011.  

8 comments:

  1. I'm not much of a fan of journal style narratives (an exception being the Pendragon series of YA books) but I like the subdued pace of Among Others that would allow for this kind of writing and make it effective. Thanks for the review :)

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  2. I adore Jo Walton's previous novel, Lifelode, and think it's one of the best fantasy novels of the lats ten years or actually, ever. Hence I've been very much looking forward to Among Others, and am doing even more so now after reading your review.
    (I have to admit to a moment of unabashed gloating on reading about the problems you had with understanding the British school system - now you have an inkling of how we Europeans feel each time an American author goes on about college and high school and related stuff.)

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  3. Heloise, I always wonder how it must be for Europeans to read about the American school system. It was actually rather interesting for me to see what it was like to read about a school system I don't understand. On an aside, it seems rare that Americans think about how our cultural aspects come across to people in other countries. I really, really enjoy reading about other cultures and I think it's kind of good for Americans to be forced to think about other countries.... even if it is school systems.

    I've never read Lifelode. I just finished Tooth and Claw by Jo Walton last week, but this book was my first by her. I really absolutely adore her writing style and am really excited to read more of her work.

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  4. I have to admit that Lifelode is the only one of her books I have read so far myself (though I lost no time in getting hold of all her others and doubtlessly will read them all... eventually), but that one quite literally blew me away. There is just so much happening in it on so many levels, and she's doing such fascinating things with time and narrative structure (but in a way as to never distract from the plot and characters, in fact it all flows so naturally that you have to take a step back to realise just how formally daring the novel is to notice it at all), and the world she describes and the character she peoples it with are just so vividly depicted, and she writes so wonderfully... in short, I can't write about Lifelode without going into gushing fan girl mode.
    Unfortunately, it only ever was released as a NESFA press hardcover, and supposedly a limited edition, too, so I'm not sure how easily it is available.

    Concerning your aside - I certainly didn't intend any US-bashing in my above post, I was just being a tad silly. Everyone takes their own culture as measuring stick for everything else, that's just unavoidable, the important thing is to be aware of it and adjust your attitudes accordingly. And Americans don't hold the monopoly on close-mindedness and intolerance, far from it, that's very much a human constant.

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  5. Heloise, I didn't think you were doing any US bashing. I'm, personally, abnormally obsessed with other cultures and even reading about things as silly as school systems is a thrill for me because it exposes me to how other people get it done and that's like brain candy to me. I absolutely love it. For me, that was a huge treat in the book and I've been (this is really pathetic for me to admit) researching European school systems since I finished reading this book. haha!

    I think, in general, it's good for people to learn about how people live life in other countries. It's good to expand your horizons. And even though this is just regarding the school system, I think it's kind of cool. Especially for teenagers who might want to read this and see what it was like to be a teenager for this one girl in another country at another time. Stuff like that is really neat to me....

    I'm weird. I know I'm weird, but it thrills me and I always kind of hope it will thrill someone else, too.

    P.S. Now you got me all excited for Lifelode. I'm going to see if I can find it somewhere...somehow. I enjoy unabashed fangirls and enjoy opportunities to read something that could turn me into one :p

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  6. Nothing pathetic about it at all, quite to the contrary - I think this kind of eager, restless curiosity is very admirable, and only wish I had it myself, but I tend to be just too lazy to follow up things like you do.

    And I wish you good luck with finding Lifelode, and hope you'll enjoy it as much as I did. :)

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  7. Lifelode is available online directly from NESFA Press as well as from Amazon.

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  8. Afraid I feel the need to rant a bit. To say up front I value and respect the views of people that liked it, and don't grudge anyone pleasure they found in this or other books. Unfortunately I have some criticisms for it, and given what this book is about will involved some comments on use and misuse of fandom appeal. I hope I don't give offense, and will say that a lot of the comments in the book on the power of SF literature--particularly on Delany and Le Guin--I agree with whole-heartedly.

    Those comments aren't enough a story, though. In short that's the issue I take with it--that the book is the end barely a novel. Particularly in how weak it is in plot and characterization. Instead what it's involved with is a truly over the top focus on self-referential SF elements, a long listing of reviews and reactions to different speculative fiction texts. What in the end is the point, beyond contributing to the strain of SF that's more and more insular and self-contained? That believes simply having a set of particular tastes makes a story compelling? I'm probably a bit hampered in this by coming to the book after Walton's posts on tor.com, but that also makes it very explicit that these are real-world tastes of the author explored at length through an awkwardly framed story. The elements of darkness and psychological function hinted at early in the story, with a recognition of how bad it would be to actually relate to the whole world only through a scifi lens, don't catalyst effectively. There's nothing really here beyond the not-at-all-subtext that SF is awesome. There are books about science fiction as SF that I find fascinating--Yellow Blue Tibia comes to mind. But that work has something to say, it uses the idea of a meta-narrative to challenge and explore unfamiliar terrain. Among Others is about a meta-narrative as consolation, as a statement of absolute value applied to personal life experiences and the experience of being a fan. The ultimate message is simply: Yay! It's a narcissistic, minimally plotted celebration of a niche mindset as being the essence of humanity.

    Ultimately I found the book self-indulgent to an immense fault, and thoroughly lacking in substance. For the gain it offers, I'd suggest just reading Walton's posts on tor--they're generally intersting, amusing and fun. That applied to a novel makes for a very weak experience, in my own humble opinion. Similar issues as with a lot of Stross, Scalzi, Butcher and Doctrow--rather than extrapolating or exploring alternatives to the present some authors are content to write only to and of fandom. And many of these works become very popular in the SFnal community, since isn't it nice to be complimented? I find that rather disheartening.

    This is probably the strongest negative reaction I've had to a book since Feed. Similarly I see this book and the enthusiastic reaction as incredibly depressing. At a positive this book at least doesn't have a plethora of spelling errors, and Walton is at least capable of subtlety. On the other hand at least Feed was about something--heavy handed strawman politics and zombie enthusiasm. Not laudable goals and it executed them very poorly, but it did at least gesture in the idea of after-effects for Romero's portrayal and a dystopian critique. Among Others doesn't look to anything outside its own little fandom world. There are good things about growing up on SF, on interacting with others around common enthusiasm. Obviously. But that is not and should not be taken as a suitable end it itself, to be as idealized and automatically laudatory as Walton's book asserts.

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