RogerBW's Blog

Among Others, Jo Walton 15 October 2018

2011 Hugo- and Nebula-award-winning fantasy. Morwenna is a young Welsh SF and fantasy fan; after losing some of her family and becoming crippled, she ends up living with her father and going to a boarding school.

And is there magic? Well, maybe. Mori herself is in absolutely no doubt of this, and it's a significant part of her life, with an ongoing struggle against fairies (mostly found not in natural places but in human ruins) and wicked humans. But since this story is written entirely from her perspective, we can never be quite sure whether she's genuinely seeing subtle magic or simply deluding herself (except for one moment late in the game, where it seems clear what's going on, but again it's not definitive). That's fine, that's fair, and it works well.

But this is also a love-letter to fantasy (and SF, and other fiction) as seen through the mind of a child, and that means lots of name-checking: in the first chapter alone we get mention of Greyfriars and Malory Towers and Angela Brazil, of L. M. Montgomery, Anderson, McCaffrey, Brunner, Tolkien, Le Guin, John Boyd, Judith Kerr, Zelazny, Delaney, Vonnegut, and Zenna Henderson… it feels at times like pandering to the presumed book-fan audience. The density goes down a little after that, but the books are still a huge part of Mor's mental landscape, her one good thing when everything else is terrible. (Actually it doesn't seem all that terrible, when one reads past her dislike of change. Perhaps this is deliberate on Walton's part, or perhaps I am just old.) The name-checking unfortunately has the same effect as a reference to a film in another film: it reminds me of other books I could be reading instead of this one, and of course it reminds me of the parts of those books I enjoyed most.

Because while the writing, as one would expect from Walton, is lovely, the whole thing is also desperately slow, with very little actually happening. Mori's internal life is so derivative of what she reads, perhaps not surprising for an accurately-drawn teenager, that she isn't terribly engaging in her own right. When she comes up with an observation about books it often feels disjointed, either too knowing or too naïve. There are moments which ought to shock and lead to major consequences, and they do neither.

My wife says that when she read this she assumed it was a sequel to another book she hadn't read (something that was a usual part of reading when she, and I, and Jo, were growing up, but doesn't happen as much now that it's easy to get lists of books in a series); there's been a Big Event in Mori's life, the reason for all the upheavals, but it's never described in detail. Yes, this is a psychological study and she presumably can't bear to think about it. But it's still a constant niggle to the reader; in another book her suppression of that memory might be the point, the thing she had to work through and accept, but not here.

I Capture the Castle is another of the books mentioned here, and one could draw obvious parallels; but rather than being a young woman's Bildungsroman this is a brief look at someone who's already done lots of growing up by the start of the story and will have lots more to do later. It's a very deep character study, but of a character who isn't very deep. It's too accurately the sort of journal that would be written by a young woman working out how she'll fit into the world, and as a result it's not at all compelling.

There's nothing offensively bad about this book. Many people whose opinions I respect find it absolutely wonderful. But for me it went down like a great lump of stodge with just a little bit of salt sprinkled through it.

Read for Neil Bowers' Hugo-Nebula Joint Winners Reread. The other nominees for the 2012 Hugo were James S. A. Corey's Leviathan Wakes, which I read and enjoyed but I wouldn't regard as Hugo quality, and George R. R. Martin's A Dance with Dragons, Mira Grant's Deadline, and China Miéville's Embassytown, none of which I've read nor do I want to. Embassytown was also up for the Nebula; the other nominees were Jack McDevitt's Firebird (more of the same in the Alex Benedict series), Kameron Hurley's God's War (which I read and very much disliked), and Genevieve Valentine's Mechanique: a Tale of the Circus Tresaulti and N. K. Jemisin's The Kingdom of Gods, neither of which I know anything about. Rather than any of these, I should probably have nominated Aaronovitch's Rivers of London or Hardinge's Twilight Robbery.

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See also:
God's War, Kameron Hurley

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