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Among Others by Jo Walton

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This book will be out next January.  Let me get my major complaint out of the way: if you are going form a book as a series of journal entries, you need to always be aware of the state of mind of the writer at the time of making the entry.  For example, if a car crashed into my house creating a fire from which I barely emerged alive, and I wanted to write a journal entry about it, I wouldn’t start the entry: “I got up around ten and made coffee, then checked my email.  Heard from an old high school friend….” unless I was going for effect (which I probably would, but that isn’t the point). It would be more  reasonable for me to say, “Holy fucking shit!  I can’t believe I’m alive!  Okay, let me tell you about MY day!  Jesus.  It was pretty normal until…”  So, yeah, there are too many entries where I had trouble believing they were being written as they were.

All in all, that’s a pretty minor beef.  Also, the thing is set in 1979-1980 in England and Wales, and other than vague mentions of Russo-American antagonism and the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, there is no feeling of what was, really a remarkable time in the British Isles and the world (the election of Thatcher, a horrible mine explosion, massive violence in Northern Ireland, Iran becomming an Islamic republic).  I get annoyed with the notion that boarding schools and small towns are so isolated that events in the world don’t penetrate.  I don’t buy it.  But that, too, is pretty minor.

Those complaints aside, this is an amazing book.  I mean, really amazing.  Ever read one of those YA books that drops in the occasional mention of what is obviously a favorite book of the author’s in such a way as to give you the uncomfortable feeling that you’re supposed to like the character because the character likes that book, or maybe likes books, and you end up feeling manipulated?  This ain’t that.  This ain’t that at all.  In this book, we follow Mor, aged 15, as she voraciously read sf just as we did, and it gives her bursts of insight just as it did us. The sf she is reading is part of who she is, and who she is becoming, and it is so real it hurts.  Meanwhile, she’s involved in a magical battle involving faeries, a dead twin sister, and those who would use magic to twist others to their ends.  And the insights from the books she reads and the magical battles keep bouncing off each other in ways that make my head spin.  I need to read this a bunch of times just to start to figure it out.

The timing of her revelations, as we gradually learn about the key incidents of the past, is perfect.  Forgive me for falling into cliche, but, “the deft touch of the master” is the only way to describe it.

A couple years ago, at Fourth Street Fantasy convention, Mrissa Lingan made the (to me) profound observation that characterization is a relationship, or a set of relationships–it’s not about this person, it’s how this person interacts with that person, and that one, and the other one.  I’ve never seen a better example of that than this book–each set of relationships reinforces every other, and makes Mor stunningly real.  Not to mention that the first person narrative is, to my mind, flawless; nailing the thought processes of a 15-year-old, very bright, articulate reader is a triumph. Also, it helps that I like her.

But there is one thing for which I will never forgive Jo Walton: As the book is set in 1979-1980, and as my first book didn’t come out until 1983, I will never get to hear what Mor thought of Jhereg, and that pisses me off!

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0 Comments

  1. I was a year older than Mor, and forty miles further north, in a rather larger town. And Jo is dead on about the lack of impact of major national and world events on SF-reading teenagers in provincial England. (And yes, I have read the book, or at least an earlier draft of it.)

  2. Darn you and your glowing review after a caveat…now I have to try to remember to look for this starting in almost a year….

    Do you have any idea how much brain space is already taken up with things you told me? ;P

  3. “I get annoyed with the notion that boarding schools and small towns are so isolated that events in the world don’t penetrate.”

    I’m not sure it’s the places as much as the state-of-fifteen that the world events don’t reach. 1979-1980 struck *me* as a perilous time in world affairs, but I think that’s because I had just left the cushion of home, where I’d never watched TV news, for a place where I was trying hard to be an adult. If I’d been fifteen? Probably not.

  4. I am so stinkin’ jealous.

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  6. I was thirteen or so during those years, living in a small town on the north edge of England. Jo’s got it spot on. I knew about the events mentioned – but the day-to-day impact to us was so minor as to not really register. Thatcher’s election was more “gosh a woman has made it” than “Oh my god we are under the jackboot of a deranged despot” that history might suggest. I think I might have been the only one in school who even had heard of Afghanistan and only because I had read the Campaigns of Alexander. Northern Ireland was omnipresent for us – from being a small child onwards, there had always been mobs and violence there and on the mainland. It was not – to us then – out of the ordinary. Big mine disaster? Three villages near to where I lived had memorials to 100+ disasters. Again, something we had grown up with.

    At age thirteen there were more important things to worry about. Like why is my face covered in spots? What is all this hair doing? My voice just went up and down five octaves on a single word! And girls!!! Not to mention the latest SF classic that I had found and was reading for the first time.

  7. The best summary of this book would be: Pamela Dean started a conversation in Tam Lin that Jo Walton is continuing in Among Others. The rest of us are lucky enough to be able to listen in.

  8. That would be a pretty great recommendation right there, even if wasn’t coming from one of my favorite authors.

  9. At 15 I thought it was more than likely always a “perilous time in world”. I think I was right. Thank Gawd for good books like this.

  10. Cheer up, maybe she’ll write a sequel set in ’84!

  11. I’ll be interested in seeing this one, being a year older and living in a moderately-sized town in England at the time.

    I think that the journal format explains the lack of mention of national and international events. It’s not that they wouldn’t be known, but someone of that age wouldn’t be likely to record them.

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