Friday, 17 June 2016

Review | Among Others by Jo Walton

by Jo Walton

My Rating: 

Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled--and her twin sister dead.

Fleeing to her father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England–a place all but devoid of true magic. There, outcast and alone, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off…

I've been meaning to read Among Others for years and constantly putting it off, not only because there's just so much to read but also because I was so certain that I'd love it when I got to it, so why rush? Sadly, it hasn't become the new favourite I hoped it would.

Told entirely in diary entries, Among Others follows Welsh girl Mori who's been sent to boarding school in England after a fight with her mother left Mori crippled and her twin sister dead. Mori and her sister grew up speaking to fairies and practicing magic, while trying to prevent the black magic their mother practices, and there's nothing Mori loves more than reading SFF. When she's sent to boarding school, it's her love of reading, and an SFF book club, that gets her through each day.

I came away from this book with one major thought: it just wasn't for me. This was a bit of a surprise; I'd spent so long hearing so many wonderful things about this book (and perhaps that was part of the problem) that I was disappointed, with myself and with the book, when I realised I wasn't enjoying reading it. This has witches and fairies and books, not to mention it's set in the UK, so why wasn't I feeling it?

I suppose my biggest problem with the book was Mori herself. In all honesty her twin sister, whose nickname was also 'Mori' or 'Mor' due to the girls being called Morwenna and Morgana, interested me a lot more than she did, and we don't even see much of her. Something about Mori got under my skin, and not in a good way.

Firstly, I thought Mori and her sister were about twelve years old until about a third of the way through the novel when it's revealed Mori's fifteen. She still sounded closer to twelve to me. Yes, she thinks about boys and sex - and one thing I will commend Jo Walton for is writing a young girl who masturbates, because too many people think masturbation is something only boys do - but she sounded very juvenile to me, which is especially confusing considering how much she reads. I'd expect her to sound more like Hermione Granger or Lisa Simpson than Sara Crewe.

On the subject of boys, Mori has some strange encounters in this book that are brought up and never mentioned again, and she seems completely undisturbed by either of them. Her estranged father is the one who sends her to school after she flees from her mother, and one night, before she starts attending school, he gets drunk and climbs into bed with her. Thankfully Mori pushes him off, but she's not even remotely upset or confused about what has happened - in fact her reaction is more along the lines of her not really being in the mood. That's your father! Not only are you under the age of consent and unfortunately in the care of someone who's clearly incapable of looking after you properly, but you're literally related to the guy. How can it not bother her that her father tried to sleep with her? She later has an encounter with a boy closer to her own age at a party whom she almost sleeps with, but doesn't because he's only turned on when he feels like he's assaulting her. Mori's reaction isn't to warn any of her friends, it's just to shrug the encounter off as a bit weird and move on, completely fine.

Now fair enough the girl's been through a lot; perhaps, after losing her twin sister, nothing else seems quite as bad, and perhaps, because she is only fifteen, she doesn't really understand the volume of those situations, but this is her diary. The entire book is told through such a personal medium and yet I always felt held at a distance.

'Luckily' Mori's relationship with boys become less worrying as the novel develops, and that's where I had another big problem. Mori starts dating Wim (yes, that's really his name), a guy a couple of years older than herself she meets at her book club, and while I'm all for positive teenage relationships in fiction - I especially loved that Mori went to the GP to seek contraceptive advice just in case she and Wim decided, together, to become sexually active - I think it's a real shame her relationship with Wim is the only real friendship she makes. Also Wim basically dates her because she's 'not like other girls', and Mori loves that.

She speaks to a few girls at school, but for the most part dislikes all of them, and she gets on well with the school librarian and another girl at the book club, whom she sees less and less after she becomes romantically involved with Wim. There's a surprising lack of positive girl friendships in this book. Considering this is a book that features witchcraft, an area of folklore that is pretty much entirely feminine, and a main character who goes to an all girls' boarding school, it's a real shame that the most prominent relationship is between Mori and her boyfriend. Even her twin sister is mentioned a lot less than I would have expected. To me it felt as though as far as Mori was concerned, the whole world revolved around Mori.

As for her mother? Her mother is such a 'bad witch' stereotype that I honestly don't understand how Mori was ever afraid of her. I've seen scarier characters on cereal boxes. This is a shame because Mori's mother is such an enigma for the majority of the novel, there is this sense of fear built up around her, but when we actually meet her it's hard to believe anyone could find her threatening. Don't get me wrong, I enjoyed Walton's magic system and I loved the way she describes the fairies, but the final 'battle' between Mori and her mother was so unbelievably underwhelming. I'm pretty sure I scoffed really loudly on the train while reading it, and received a few weird looks because I'd chosen to sit in the quiet carriage. Oops.

I can understand the allure of reading a book about a person who loves to read books, this one was just tiresome. I love books - I wouldn't have a book blog if I didn't - but I also have other interests. Mori doesn't. Each and every day she does nothing but read SFF, and in doing so her diary becomes more like a reading journal in parts, and all the name-dropping of titles and authors gets really old, really fast. I love slow, coming of age stories, but this was samey and dull: we get it, Mori, you like SFF. You're still not better than the rest of us!

I couldn't help wondering if perhaps Walton had made Mori a bookworm in the hopes of making her more likable, as her creator surely she must know that Mori's pretty insufferable, and the sad thing about it is that I would have found Mori fascinating if we weren't meant to like her, if she was the twin who wasn't supposed to live. Instead we have this... horrible, bratty little girl (I know she's been through a lot, but I'm sorry she's still awful) trying to convince us she's SFF's greatest new heroine. Just no.

So as you can tell I really wasn't a fan of this and I'm so disappointed. If nothing else I'm glad I finally crossed it off my TBR, and if it's a book you've been thinking of checking out I recommend it purely and simply because I'm in the minority here; this book is loved by many. If, however, you think you have fairly similar tastes to me I'd stay away from it, it'll just make you mad.


  1. The thing with Among Others is that it's actually semi-autobiographical. I've never actually asked Jo which bits are truest, but I suspect that's why it worked for me -- I share certain aspects of my background with Mori and with Jo. (I'd say it also helps that I know and like Jo, but that came after I'd read the book, I think.)

    1. I completely get why a lot of people love it so much, I think I would have loved it if I'd read it a few years ago, but sadly it just didn't work for me. I wish it had, though!