Halloween reading doesn’t get much better than this. Among Others is a novel for anyone who’d love to find Narnia in their wardrobe.
Author Jo Walton has woven a fantasy landscape where fairies can be seen by select believers. Set in the late 1970s in the UK, this is a genre-mash-up that mixes boarding school, coming of age stories and a big dollop of magic.
If everything you’ve read so far screams ‘Harry Potter’, don’t be fooled! The supernatural elements in Among Others are subtle and barely distinguishable from everyday life. Fifteen-year-old Mori began playing with fairies at a young age but there’s no wand waving or magic lessons in sight.
Twins and Tragedy
One of the largest events in this story happens before the novel begins. Mori tragically lost her only sibling – an identical twin – in a car accident that also left her with a permanent leg injury. She believes the collision was caused by a magical battle where she and her sister faced down their chaotic and dangerous witch-mother.
Social services (who are oblivious to magical goings-on) separate Mori from her extended family in the Welsh valleys. She’s sent to her absentee English father and his upperclass sisters, then packed off to a snotty boarding school where she finds solace in the library and science fiction. However, her mother is still at large and potentially dangerous.
Science Fiction Homage
Among Others is written in diary format, so readers only see Mori’s viewpoint. At one point I wondered whether fairies and magic were a make-believe world created by a bereaved girl but a quick look at the author’s website suggests this probably isn’t the case. Jo Walton calls Mori “a science fiction reader who has fantasy problems”, and what a reader she is! Many of her diary entries are dedicated to the books she devours. This entire story is a loving tribute to library inter-lending and twentieth century science fiction. If you love SF, you’ll adore this book.
Outsiders Looking In
Mori is trying to learn where she fits into the world. Dropped into a new place with a new name, she’s an outsider. Separated from her beloved twin forever, she delves into books, creating friends (sometimes with magic) and exploring new family relationships. Oddly, the connection between Mori and her ‘witch’ mother is never really explored despite being pivotal to the plot. Is the mother as evil as she’s been painted, or is she simply ill? I don’t feel we’re given enough page-time with her to be sure.
Among Others doesn’t set out to be a how-to guide to adult life. Mori is far from perfect but intelligent, curious, believably flawed and well aware of her school’s twisted elitism. She speaks slightingly of young-adult-books-with-morals and various incidents (particularly a deeply disturbing event with her father) that make this seem like an unvarnished, sometimes traumatic account of her life.
Verdict: Jo Walton has created a slow-paced love letter to the library system. The magic here is intriguingly obscure and impossible to pin down. For me this was less about fairies and witches than a teenager’s search for books and belonging. You won’t be surprised to hear that Jo Walton won the Hugo Award AND the Nebula Award for this understated story.
I’d love to hear other people’s recommendations for Halloween reading. If you have any spooky or supernatural suggestions please let me know below!