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Thursday, 23 October 2014

‘Among Others’ by Jo Walton

Published by Corsair,
21st March 2013.
ISBN: 978-1-47210-653-7

I’d better begin with a health warning.
This book came to the wrong review site. By no known definition could it be described as crime or mystery. You don’t even have to open it to learn this; there’s an enormous clue on the cover – it won two awards, the Hugo and the Nebula: major prizes both, but for science-fiction and fantasy. And you’re still not convinced, google the author and you’ll find she is an established and acclaimed writer of fantasy, with no track record in crime fiction.

It isn’t even cross-genre. Well, it is – but Young Adult crossed with fantasy rather than crime crossed with anything. The only nod towards crime is the psychological, or possibly psychic, damage the protagonist has suffered at her mother’s hands. And maybe the bullying she encounters at school, but that seems to be normal behaviour, however unacceptable.
On the other hand... Woman cannot live by crime fiction alone. Twenty pages in, I was hooked. I loved it. I ached to know how it would finish, but I didn’t want it to end.

It’s slightly weird, but slightly weird appeals to me, speaks to me, in fact. Mori, the fifteen-year-old narrator, doesn’t so much believe in magic and fairies as assume their existence as demonstrable and unremarkable fact. She casts spells and they work, or, if you prefer, after she casts them, the things she expects to happen actually do happen.

It’s written, quite beautifully, in the form of a diary covering ten life-changing, coming-of-age months in Mori’s life. Right from the start she hints at the tragedy in her past: a few months earlier she and her twin sister set out to stop their mother from using black magic for her own selfish and terrible ends, and the price of their success was her sister’s life and her own physical well-being. Part of the story’s charm is the slow, subtle unfolding of this backstory, which ultimately leads to her mother’s attempt at revenge, and a huge decision for Mori herself.

As has often been the case in the small amount of fantasy I’ve read, many of the characters are two-dimensional, but somehow in this context that’s how it should be. It’s as if Mori is viewing them as figures on a moving canvas, not connecting or interacting with them. When she does encounter people she can connect with – her warm and loving South Welsh relations, a lively book group she discovers, or magicks up, depending how you want to see it – they fill out and become real.

Mori herself is a glorious mix of insecurity, certainty, desperation, hope, self-doubt – the whole adolescent nine yards with added physical disability, and a passion and appetite for books which I struggle to rival. At the end, when she proved herself more powerful than the controlling mother who caused such damage, and began to see a way out of the labyrinthine tangle of being a teenager, I wanted to cheer.

Crime fiction it’s not. A wonder and a joy, as it was described by the leading critic quoted on the cover, it certainly is. If I hadn’t already fallen in love with it, a couple of lines of page 329 would have clinched it: They could take the money from building enough nukes to kill all the Russians in the world and give it to libraries. What good does an independent nuclear deterrent do, compared to the good of libraries?
Doesn’t that say it all?
Reviewer: Lynne Patrick

Jo Walton is a Welsh-Canadian fantasy and science fiction writer and poet. Born in December 1964.  She won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002 and the World Fantasy award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004.

Lynne Patrick has been a writer ever since she could pick up a pen, and has enjoyed success with short stories, reviews and feature journalism, but never, alas, with a novel. She crossed to the dark side to become a publisher for a few years, and is proud to have launched several careers which are now burgeoning.     
She lives on the edge of rural Derbyshire in a house groaning with books, about half of them crime fiction.

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