Jo Walton’s Among Others drew a lot of praise from... well, from the same type of people who praised Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother . And like that book, Among Others is a story about a teenager that’s actually aimed at people who are now in their mid-40s (though, to its credit, it’s upfront about this, and doesn’t try to wear ridiculous YA badging like Little Brother did).
So despite having loved just about everything Walton’s written, I was a bit nervous about this book. I mean, it’s a mythologized semi-autobiographical tale of growing up in the late ‘70s as an SF reader; you can see how that could be seriously nostalgia-inducing, and plaudits from people who could be nostalgic for that time pretty much serve as anti-recommendations in that context. But with some relief I can say that the book is pretty decent.
Decent, but not great. Walton seems to enjoy telling stories that play with the shapes of narrative. Sometimes, this works really well (as in Farthing , where the failure to fit in the shape of a murder mystery was almost a visceral hit), and sometimes it works less well (as in Lifelode , which is telling a personal story in an epic fantasy landscape, and can’t quite balance the weight of the setting and the story). This is one of the “less well” books.
Which is sort of frustrating, because Walton does so much so well here. The characters are superb, and seem real in precisely the way that Doctorow’s characters don’t. Even through first-person narration, you can see the subtle touches of personality the protagonist sometimes misses (such as the streak of self-absorbed indifference in her boyfriend). The setting is great, too. I mean, it’s our world, right, but with magic — and it’s precisely the sort of magic it would have to be, for it to actually be our world, the kind that makes you wonder if maybe the protagonist is actually imagining it all.
But those characers and that setting are put to the service of a plot that’s... well, hardly a plot at all. It’s a bit like John M. Ford’s Growing Up Weightless, where there are world-significant plot points that happen in the background, but it’s even more like a memoir, where stuff happens just because it actually happened, and it doesn’t really have any significance in the story.
Still, I enjoyed it well enough, and if I think it’s the weakest of Walton’s work that I’ve read, it’s still a decent book. And heck, maybe it’s not the nostalgic people that have it wrong, maybe it’s just that this isn’t to my tastes (I didn’t like Growing Up Weightless, either, which a lot of people rave about; nor Pamela Dean’s Tam Lin, which also shares some elements in common with Among Others). If you’ve read and liked Walton’s other works, go ahead and pick this one up. If you haven’t, go pick up Farthing.