Among Others is sort of an odd book – it’s fantasy but at the it’s the author’s homage to science fiction. Morwenna is fifteen and has run away from her abusive mother. She recently lost her twin sister in some kind of showdown with their mother, and now she must depend on a father she has never known. She’s sent to a prestigious English boarding school and struggles to fit in.
Mori sees fairies and can cast spells, but her magical abilities seem to be mostly unexplored. We don’t know too much about her mother, although more is revealed throughout the book. Mori’s afraid of her mother but also depressed and mourning for her dead sister. She also suffered a painful injury to her leg and has to walk with a cane.
It’s an oddly “mundane” book for a fantasy novel, and I don’t mean that in a negative way. This book is more about Mori’s daily life than it is about magic. It’s about going to school, making friends, standing on your own two feet, accepting yourself and your flawed family members. It’s about finding the good in a life that’s mostly pretty bad.
And, it’s about the love of books. Specifically, science fiction. Mori spends a lot of time on her own, and books are her most precious possessions. She also finds that she connects to the people around her, like the school and town librarians, and even her own father, through books. Science fiction is how she understands the world. In this, she and I had a lot in common.
There are a ton of references in this book to science fiction, and even a lot of lengthy discussions about these books. Most of these references went over my head. I read some science fiction but nothing close to what Mori reads. Still, I thought the constant references to books I hadn’t read would annoy me, but it didn’t. I had so much sympathy for Mori, and could really see myself in her shoes – even if our reading tastes are a little different. Every time she finds someone she can talk to about books, it just made me happy for her.
I liked that this book spent a lot of time explaining and thinking about magic. For example, Mori talks about what fairies look like, how to find them and how they talk (not at all like the elves of Rivendell, it turns out). There’s some interesting discussion of the use of magic – Mori casts a spell to find like-minded friends (her “karass”, a reference to Vonnegut’s Cat’s Cradle). Sadly, Mori starts to make friends and then is tormented by her certainty that her magic has forced people to be friends with her.
The book is told from Mori’s point of view, and there are a lot of times I questioned her reliability as a narrator. But that kept the book interesting. Sometimes you wonder how much magic there is in Mori’s world, and how much is in her head.
Two things about this book you should know: the plot is pretty slow-moving. This is not an action-packed novel, even though it’s about magic. Similarly, the plot is not nearly as strong as the character development. There are a lot of unresolved plot points, and the book feels like it’s building toward a big showdown which is ultimately disappointing.
But if you want a good character-driven book, and especially if you’re looking for a book for someone younger who loves fantasy and science fiction, give this one a try. I know that people are often on the lookout for good novels about characters with disabilities, and this seemed like one to me. And if you’re a librarian, or know one, you’ll love this book. Whether it’s magic or not, Mori gets by because a librarian is looking out for her.
Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards for best novel.