Book review: Jo Walton’s ‘Among Others’

May 13, 2011

Welsh-born fantasist Jo Walton has built an award-winning career on elegant, quietly subversive novels such as “Farthing,” an alternate history that sets murder in an English country house against the background of a Britain that made peace with Hitler; and “Tooth and Claw,” a riff on Anthony Trollope’s Barsetshire series, where dragons stand in for the Victorians and social fence-hopping is enabled by eating one’s betters.

In “Among Others,” Walton’s newest work, 10-year-old Morwenna and her twin sister, Morganna, look for fairies, not in the bottom of a garden but lurking in the ruins of a Welsh coal plant. It’s the strongest conceit of this beautifully written, if somewhat underpowered tale: that fairies are drawn to human ruins, industrial as well as ancient, occupying them once weeds and vines overtake abandoned factories and mines and stone circles.

Their mother, Liz, is a witch, though her behavior seems more like that of someone who is mentally ill; Walton does a deft job of balancing much of her tale upon a knife-edge where the reader is never quite sure whether the magic described is real or imagined. Morwenna barely prevents their mother from completing a dreadful spell, but the cost is terrible: Morganna is killed and Morwenna crippled by the event. The surviving twin escapes her malevolent mother by moving to England to live with her father, who abandoned his children when they were toddlers and who promptly ships her off to Arling­hurst, an English boarding school.

It’s more difficult to find fairies at Arlinghurst, where Morwenna (known, like her sister, as Mor) finds herself in 1979, a year after her twin’s death. Now 15, she hates her “cripple shoes” and cane but is refreshingly free of self-pity. And she finds an unexpected kindred spirit in her father, whose library is full of science fiction and fantasy novels. Like the forsaken sites where she used to play, Mor herself is colonized, not by fairies but by books: More than anything else, “Among Others” is a love letter to the literature of the fantastic and to SF fandom.

This is problematic as well as charming, because nothing much happens in the novel. Walton gives Mor the now-familiar geek’s origin story featuring a precocious, bookish misfit (it takes one to know one) enamored of Tolkien and Samuel R. Delany, out of place in her posh school and longing for a simpatico cohort. One of the myriad titles mentioned throughout the novel is Kurt Vonnegut’s “Cat’s Cradle,” with its notion of a karass, a group knit together (without always knowing it) by their quest toward a common goal.

Young Mor invokes the karass a number of times. It’s a fictional construct she aches to find in the real world, even more perhaps than the fairies she glimpses from the corner of her eyes in the brambles surrounding Arlinghurst. “Among Others” is told in the form of Mor’s journal, echoing another book she loves, Dodie Smith’s sublime “I Capture the Castle.” Alas, Mor’s voice is far less compelling than that of Smith’s teenage diarist, Cassandra, who (to give Mor credit) has a loopily over-the-top, impoverished, arty family to write about and really does live in a ruined castle. Whereas Mor has only Arlinghurst, her father and his three drearily mundane half sisters to sharpen her pen upon. Worse, her insights into the sf novels she loves are too often smug (one imagines readers nodding enthusiastically at the mention of each bit of insider knowledge) and lacking in insight, even for a bright teenager:

“James Tiptree, Jr. is a woman! Gosh! I never would have guessed though. My goodness, Robert Silverberg must have egg all over his face. But I bet he doesn’t care. . . . If I’d written Dying Inside I wouldn’t mind how much of a fool of myself I made about anything ever again.”

A plot thread involving Liz’s efforts to cast a spell upon Mor from afar is much less engaging than Mor’s encounter with the dishy boy who wins her heart by dissing Robert Heinlein’s “Starship Troopers.”

Too often Walton preaches to the literary fangirl choir. In addition to the authors already mentioned, she name-checks works by L.M. Montgomery, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy, Poul Anderson, Anne McCaffrey, Virgil, John Brunner, Angela Brazil, Enid Blyton, Frank Richards, Ursula Le Guin, John Boyd, Judith Kerr, Roger Zelazny, Zenna Henderson, Walter M. Miller and Robert Silverberg. And that’s only in the first two chapters. One leaves this book humming the titles, which overwhelm Walton’s delicate, lovely handling of the magical elements.

“I have wandered in many lands, seeking the lost regions from which my birth into this world exiled me, and the company of creatures such as I myself,” George Bernard Shaw wrote in “Caesar and Cleopatra,” a work not cited in “Among Others.” Yet the quote could have served as the motto for Walton’s novel, which ends happily, its heroine having found, at last, a haven and boon companions, inside a world outside of books.

Hand’s most recent novel is “Illyria.”

AMONG OTHERS

By Jo Walton

Tor. 302 pp. $24.99

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