Thoughts on Among Others by Jo Walton

I recently read Jo Walton’s Among Others, winner of the 2012 Nebula, Hugo and British Fantasy Awards for best novel. Since it’s one of the few recent SF novels I’ve read of late, I thought I would share some of my thoughts. [Mild spoilers…]


Among Others has been described as many things: a fairy story, a love-letter to science fiction, an aftermath story, a magical boarding school story…

… and the cool thing is it’s ALL of these things at once. It’s also a young adult story about coming of age and healing of the heart and soul.

Set in 1979, the story is told in diary form by Morwenna, Mori for short, a 15 year-old Welsh girl whose twin sister has been killed in an unspecified magical showdown with their deranged mother. Mori has fled her mother and the fairy-populated Welsh hills of her childhood, and been sent to live with her estranged father, who sends her to a typical English boarding school. Struggling to deal with her new life and circumstances, Mori finds solace in the voracious reading of fantasy and science fiction novels. These also prove an area of common ground with her father, but it isn’t until she finds the local science fiction book club, populated by kindred spirits, that she starts to deal with the trauma in her past and embrace her new life.

As the narrator, Mori’s voice is engaging, forthright, and passionate (especially when discussing and naming the vast number of books she reads). She writes with conviction about magic and fairies, explaining how the magic works, the nature of her mother’s magical vindictiveness, what the fairies look like and the nature of her relationship with them.  Yet at the same time she’s awkward as she tries to make sense of boarding school culture, her relationship with her father, her growth from a child into a young woman.

It’s complex and many-layered. Lots to think about and question. I think the author does a great job of subtly adjusting Mori’s voice and tone as the story progresses, reflecting the lifting of her spirits and the introduction of hope into her life.

It’s not a fast-paced novel, more a gentle unfurling of light out of dark. The big events have happened in the past and Among Others is about picking up the broken pieces, adapting and getting on with it. The fairy elements and the science fiction/fantasy elements and the boarding school elements and the family elements are all woven seamlessly together. The different threads glitter at different times, depending on which way you hold the fabric up.

It’s by no means a necessity, but to get the most out of this book it would probably help to have an appreciation for science fiction and fantasy — or reading at the very least. There are, it has to be said, many discussions about science fiction and fantasy novels, but they’re not that lengthy. Nonetheless, scores (hundreds?) of books, most of them classics of the 1970s, are mentioned by name and author as they pass through Mori’s reading pile with amazing speed.

I’ve heard the book criticised for this, but even though I’d read very few of the books mentioned, I was willing to go with their inclusion, since I felt it was such an intrinsic part of Mori’s character.

I enjoyed this book a lot. It warmed me and made me smile, without blowing my mind. And although I believe it’s technically classed as a genre book, it’s not typical of such and I think it would be very accessible and enjoyable for non-genre readers. I can see why it won so many awards.

If you’ve read Among Others, what did you think of it?

5 thoughts on “Thoughts on Among Others by Jo Walton

  1. I actually had trouble with Among Others, I think mainly because of the “aftermath” structure. It’s an epilogue, a reintegration to normal life…or rather an integration, since Mori’s life was never normal to begin with.

    That means it’s a “quiet” book where not a lot happens, at least externally, and I’m not used to reading that. Except in literary novels, of course, which I do enjoy now and then. But that wasn’t what I was expecting, going in, so I kept waiting for the story to start and then it didn’t.

    Of course I loved the parts where she’s falling in love with books (most of which I hadn’t read either, but I could appreciate the sentiments, the flowering of a reader). I also loved the glimpses of the fairy-ridden landscape where she grew up. And the actual writing is lovely.

    Here’s a neat tidbit — the book is partially autobiographical. (spoilers…) Jo Walton really did grow up exploring the Welsh countryside with her sister, who was hit by a car and died at a similar age; their mother was mentally ill; and she was sent to an English boarding school after her sister’s death. I met her at World Fantasy Con last year, and IIRC she still walks with a cane. I can only imagine the parts about the books and discovering fandom are also drawn from her life.

    Somewhere on Goodreads there’s a list of all the books Mori mentions.


    1. I know what you mean… I kept waiting for the story to start too. And it wasn’t until I realised it wasn’t going to that I could appreciate it properly for what it was (or what I thought it was 😉 ). As such [more spoilers] I was disappointed there actually was a final showdown with her mother. I’d become convinced she wasn’t going to make an appearance.

      I think it’s one of those books you like more having finished it, when you can look at it from all angles and appreciate it for its elegance.

      Thanks for the real-life tidbit… I had heard it was part-autobiographical, but didn’t realise to what extent. Gotta love those conventions!


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