Friday, 12 October 2012

Among Others by Jo Walton

I bought Among Others without knowing much about it. I knew it was set in Wales, that it had an uninviting cover, that it had won awards and that it is speculative fiction (it's a magical realist novel about a science fiction enthusiast). So, somewhat put off by the cover, I was surprised at how much I turned out to enjoy this book.

Starting out with a beautifully atmospheric prologue, the novel then skips ahead by some time, and takes the format of a diary. In our prologue, two girls try to do some magic to fight against a polluting factory in Abercwmboi, Wales. The diary, years later, is that of one of the girls, now in changed circumstances.

It is difficult to go into detail: I enjoyed reading through the book without knowing anything about the story, and I don't want to reduce anyone's enjoyment. So, instead of focusing on events and plot, I'll describe the style of the book.

It is a mellow book: don't expect cliffhangers or huge drama. You're reading the (very realistic) diary of a teenage Welsh girl going to an English boarding school. Adjust your expectations to that.

It is a book about growing up, and nervous first encounters with sexuality. But the writing is that of a very academical girl, with a mind that does not tend to over-romanticise. It is never erotic nor pornographic, but neither is it shy.

It is a story featuring fairies and magic, but not in any way I've ever encountered them before. This book is set in our world, not any other, and you may soon find yourself wondering whether it is really a book about believing in fairies and magic, rather than a book about actual fairies and magic. Things are so subtly interwoven and so grounded that I was not sure of my narrator, which made the novel very interesting.

It is a book about someone who loves books, and specifically science fiction and fantasy (and more specifically: post-1960s new wave science fiction above all else). Hundreds of books and authors get name-checked, often with just a single thought about them. It is a book for readers. You know how some novels set in London take you through the city, street by street, turning familiar geography into excitement for Londoners (and frequent visitors of the city)? You know how encountering a street or park that you know in real life in a story can liven it up? Well, Among Others is set in the geography of a voracious science fiction reader's mind, and for other readers, this name-checking makes it a very lively read: almost like a conversation with a fellow reader. It may be a little alienating for those who never or rarely read any sf/f at all.

At the start, I was a bit alienated - the narrative voice sounded slightly American to me, as the only indication of accent / localised speech is the way "grandpa" is written as "grampar", which does not sound Welsh to my (German-born) ears. However, that alienation quickly faded, and I was left reading a wonderfully pleasant novel, which did not hurry but still engaged me because our narrator is just the sort of person I would enjoy spending time around: on the fringes, not popular, but geeky, smart, well-read, cultured, able to hold down a conversation, in every possible way not shallow and not pretentious.

I can't really think of any comparable novel. I thought this was a truly wonderful read.

The novel is not entirely flawless - the very final bits are a little bit weak, but forgivably so.

Rating: 5/5

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