Among Others when I read the premise, and when I finished the book I knew Jo Walton was my long lost kindred spirit and I would have to stalk her until she agreed to become my BFF. (Or I could just keep following her blog and reading her books: less creepy and almost as satisfying.)
Anyone who was ever bookish and didn't fit in and discovered SF at a critical time in their life is going to find a kindred spirit in Mor, the narrator of Among Others. Something terrible has happened to Mor, and she's run away and is now in the care of a father and aunts she's never met, and she has to go to boarding school, and books are the only thing getting her through. Well, books and fairies, though the fairies in the little patch of woods behind the school don't seem to speak either English or Welsh like the fairies back home.
If you've read much of my blog you know I don't really buy in to fairies (oops, I mean faeries), but these ones are different: they're real. I am quite convinced that Jo Walton spent her childhood dealing with them, and I can understand why Sherwood Smith is miffed that she didn't tell her about them.
In fact, just go read Sherwood Smith's review, because I'm finding it hard to put my feelings about this book into words, and 'liminal' is the best word I've heard yet.
I love Mor as an unreliable narrator. The faeries and the magic are absolutely real to her, but all the way through it's perfectly possible that she's making it all up—or that she's insane. Jo Walton says it's real, but the ambiguity makes the reading experience quite delicious. Plus, Mor doesn't tell us things. We know something terrible happened, but we have to piece it together from stuff Mor lets drop. It sounds like it was a climactic battle between good and evil, the kind that a fantasy would normally conclude with—but this fantasy is all about what happened after, when Mor walked away, injured but alive, from a confrontation she thought would kill her. It's about how to keep going, how to survive.
It's also about how to figure out who you are, where you belong, and the unreliability and ambiguity of the narration work so well to depict this.* The scenes when Mor is trying to find her karass are heartbreakingly real. (I finally gave up and googled "karass": it's from Kurt Vonnegut's Cat's Cradle, which I really ought to read, and it means a group of people who are cosmically connected.)
Oh, the allusions! I want to make a list of all the books Mor reads, go read them myself, and then reread Among Others. I'm sure that would add twenty more layers to all the layers I already got on a first read.**
I've said too much; I haven't said enough. I'm pretty sure that anyone who is following my blog will love this book, so just go read it! (It's marketed as adult, but it makes a perfect YA book. The few references to sex are frank but not explicit. Younger readers might get fewer of the classic sci fi references, but it's a great way to find out what books you ought to read!)
Among Others is one of those fancy constructed desserts made with different kinds of bittersweet chocolate: like maybe a warm Venezuelan chocolate brownie with Mexican chocolate ganache, a dollop of Belgian chocolate mousse and a spoonful of Madagascar chocolate gelato; as you eat it you get all the different textures and temperatures and combinations of flavenoids and they enhance each other in different ways as you combine them differently.
Hmm. Chocolate. Might have to go get some now.
Oh! And Jo Walton is Canadian!!
For more great Canadian reads, click through to John Mutford's blog.
*Slightly spoilery so written in yellow; highlight to read:We don't even know which twin Mor is for the longest time: Morganna or Morwenna! (And there's always the insanity possibility: maybe there never was a twin!)
**There's nothing like recognizing an allusion for creating an instant bond between you and the allluding person (like when I was at a Shakespeare festival in Oregon and the person in front of me was wearing a Shepherd Book shirt).