Among others | Jo Walton

Plucked from the homely valleys of South Wales and sent to an English boarding school, tough little bookworm Mor has all sorts of battles on her hands. As if mean class-mates, puberty, and being Welsh wasn’t enough, she also has constant pain from an injury in a mysterious car crash, the loss of her twin sister in the same incident, and a new connection with her hitherto unknown father and his strange family to deal with. Oh and difficulties with the fairy world, anxiety about her magical abilities, and a deranged witch of a mother who makes Mrs Coulter look like Mary Poppins. Many teenage girls struggle with feelings of isolation and weirdness: Mor has especially good reason to.

Mor’s diaries form the narrative, with all the angst and pomposity of the teenage diarist you’d expect – done really well, without becoming parody. She is a likeable awkward brainy girl, and a strong character, which diary form requires seeing as you’re living in that character’s head for the duration. As well as being a mobility-impaired teenage witch with a profoundly dysfunctional family, Mor is also hopelessly addicted to books. And her reading notes are a big part of her diaries, which for SF aficionados may well be a joy, but means a bit of skimming for the rest of us. Although it turns out there is a magical purpose to books as well as nerd-fodder so that’s ok.

Like much of her reading material, Mor’s own story is a quest, a journey into the unknown, a battle between primal forces, then overcoming terrible odds, and enlightenment. Except (cf The Dark is Rising) her life is dictated by the mundane routine of school and family life, punctuated by supernatural encounters, which she must face more or less alone. She builds her power from being in nature, reading, and (human) kindred spirits, which in various ways gradually help her deal with her grief, pain and fear. None of which has any sentimentality or schmaltz about it. Just good life lessons for troubled teenage witches and the rest of us.   

‘Among others’ is a bit over-long, a bit repetitive, the plot was kind of holey and the pace is a bit lumpy. Such is life though I suppose, even if you do have supernatural powers. But there was so much to love as well, and two things in particular for me. I really liked the fairies. No pretty little flower fairies or ethereally stylish Arthur Rackham types here; Mor’s Welsh fairy folk are mainly ugly and peculiar, while the English variety are ugly, peculiar and unfriendly. Despite being monosyllabic and baffling, the fairies were more fully realised and engaging than the sketchy human characters. As I suppose they would be.    

Also, although it was set in 1979-80, it wasn’t plagued by references to music, sweets, clothes, pop culture etc that have been done to death now, for which I was grateful. Not a single Curly-Wurly, Wimpy Bar, or Smash Hits. The heroine in her hermetically-sealed boarding school is interested only in Greek myths, Latin and SF and that was fine with me.

And one final thing – huge kudos to the author for her answer to a question on the book’s Goodreads page:

Q: I’ve read 43 pages so far and just can’t get into it. Should I persevere?

A: Life is too short to read books you’re not enjoying. Reading is supposed to be a pleasure, not an endurance test. Not every book is for everyone, certainly not every book of mine. Go read something else!

How cool is that.