I just finished Among Others by Jo Walton, enjoying it hugely. Not only am I pretty sure that some of you would like it too, I can predict who will and who won’t.
Predictions · The novel concerns a young person who’s mixed up in magic (believably and carefully) while fighting through the problems of adolescence in a dysfunctional but super-interesting family. Right away, some of you are thinking “sounds interesting”; the rest can stop reading right here.
Next: if you’re a bookish kind of person who as a kid read everything in sight; to whom books were and are important, the chances are very high that this is for you.
And finally, if you were a sci-fi hound in your youth, if you recognize names like Delany and Zelazny and Brunner, you want to run not walk to the nearest bookstore or Web site and snap it up; trust me on this.
Good Stuff · This book is amazingly well-written. It comes at you indirectly, gracefully, full of surprises. The central conflict climaxed offstage before the story really gets started; the action plays out amid its aftermath.
I guess some facts are in order: It’s the story of a 15-year-old girl with some love in her family but a scary mother who, crippled by the accident where she lost her identical twin, is exiled to an icky boarding school. She has the cutest romance with an adorable young man, and does a good job of dealing with school’s horrors.
She can make magic, and talks with fairies.
A Theory of Magic · Gosh, this is starting to sound familiar, isn’t it? Magic, boarding school, supernatural creatures?
Only our heroine Mori (and her family) is a much more interesting person than anyone at Hogwarts (or theirs), and the story arc isn’t a linear progression of triumphs, and the magic is immensely more believable.
Which matters. I think that if you’re going to write a book in which people do magic, there ought to be some coherency to it, and it shouldn’t be easy, and it should be serious business. I’d argue that this was the chief failing of the Rowling books (which, to be fair, I read and enjoyed). Waving a wand and barking pseudo-Latin to fire off a spell which the victim might actually dodge?! Gimme a break.
Prior to this, the most impressive theory of magic I’ve read was that in Le Guin’s Earthsea books. That magic had to be wielded sparingly, with careful regard for the world’s balance, and occasionally at terrible personal cost to the practitioner.
This magic is different; but still coherent and dangerous and needful of caution. The magic, and the fairies which accompany it, are remarkably convincing; what real magic and real supernatural creatures might be like, were you ever to encounter them. It’s good stuff.
Being Bookish · Our heroine, running from her mother, bereft of her sister, frightened of her aunts, often in pain, lives by books. Libraries are at the center of the story, of the romance, of the family healing. Nobody who’s been a bookish teenager could fail, I think, to resonate.
And not just any books; the story is set specifically in 1979-80, and the stories in question are the classic Sci-Fi of those days; those names I mentioned up in the first paragraph. They meant a whole lot to a lot of people, both older and I suspect much younger than me. They are active characters in this book, and while I suspect you’d enjoy it even if you didn’t like Doorways in the Sand or The Dispossessed, you’ll smile from ear to ear at certain lines here if you do.
(By the way, neither of those seem to be for sale electronically, but if you don’t know one or the other and see it on a used-book shelf, buy first and think later. Both are good but Doorways has to be one of the most charming and personable little SF novels ever.)
A Fearless Prediction · This thing totally has a lock on the Nebula.
Comment feed for ongoing:
From: Tkil (Apr 11 2012, at 01:02)
For all its other failings, Terry Brooks' "Shannara" world did expose the cost of doing magic (in fairly believable terms).
It's been a long time, but Piers Anthony's "Adept" series also had the cost of magic as a factor (in terms of a finite supply of magical "ore").
Mercedes Lackey's "Valdemar" world has a comprehensive system of magic (cost, control, source, sinks).
I have a fascination -- a few years out of date by now -- with Guy Gavriel Kay: he started as an amazingly lyrical author, and has only gotten better as he progressed... but his subject matter has gotten less magical along the way.
As for being bookish in the early 1980s... I was maybe a little young for the hard-core sci-fi / fantasy that you mention. I do recall enjoying the second wave of Tom Swift books from the local library, and eventually consumed Asimov, Clarke, and Heinlein as I became more politically mature.
Either way, thanks for the recommendation.
From: Alex (Apr 11 2012, at 01:29)
You might like "Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality", HPMOR.com ...
From: Bryce Ewing (Apr 11 2012, at 03:00)
Having a magic system that makes sense is one of the reasons that I like Brandon Sanderson's writing. He in fact talks about this in this post:
From: Richard Wills (Apr 11 2012, at 05:39)
The last few months I have been reading Tales of MU, the online novel by Alexandra Erin.
Her world-building and analysis of how magic works in the mu-niverse is fascinating. And lots of kinky sex and brutal violence to boot.
For some time now I have avoided the fantasy genre as most of the material appeared repitious to me. I did enjoy Rowlings work and think that her most important accomplishment was to wind the HP series up with a satisfactory ending. Too many other authors fail to achieve that goal.
After reading your review of Meta Magic
I am impresed enough to get a copy. And I will scour Camelot Books for the other works you mentioned as they would be worth re-reading.
From: Curtis Pew (Apr 11 2012, at 06:08)
Have you read anything by Brandon Sanderson? He’s known for working out the rules for how magic works in his worlds.
From: Emanuel (Apr 11 2012, at 06:36)
thanks for the review, I really enjoy your suggestions :)
Just a quick note to say I've found The Dispossessed available on Kindle US ( http://www.amazon.com/The-Dispossessed-Perennial-Classics-ebook/dp/B000FC11GA )
From: Steve Downey (Apr 11 2012, at 08:31)
Among Others also picked up a well deserved Hugo nomination last weekend.
From: Eric James Soltys (Apr 11 2012, at 09:08)
"The Dispossessed" is also available on Apple's iBooks store. No Zelazny ebooks? That's a shame.
From: Nick Johnson (Apr 11 2012, at 18:18)
For some totally perplexing reason, 'Among Others' isn't available as an ebook from Amazon if, like me, you live in Australia.
From: Eric A. Meyer (Apr 11 2012, at 19:15)
Tim, I can’t tell you how delighted I am to discover that you too are a fan of <cite>Doorways in the Sand</cite>. I <strong>love</strong> that book. In fact, thanks to this post I am now off to start (yet another) re-read. And also to add <cite>Among Others</cite> to my Amazon Wish List.
From: Tony Fisk (Apr 11 2012, at 20:01)
Another source of distraction!! (will probably have to get around to Methods Rationality at some point, too!)
In a similar vein, I can heartily recommend the online graphic novel 'Gunnerkrigg Court' which portrays life in a strange boarding school that emphasises science, while surrounded by a primordial forest where magic holds sway. Lots of mystery, wonder, and model rocketry! http://www.gunnerkrigg.com/index2.php
Favourite quote: Kat: "Haha! One does not get 'bored' in double physics!"
'Earthsea': my reactions to that are mixed. The early trilogy portrays a world that seems... flat, dour and depressing. It took me a while to realise that the problem is the world's attitude to death: on shuffling off the mortal coil, your shade is tossed over the wall into a shadow world of nothingness. A wonderful thing to look forward to, I don't think! It appears Le Guin came to a similar conclusion because the last novel tackles this problem head on, to a fairly satisfactory conclusion.
From: Tim Converse (Apr 11 2012, at 20:59)
Wow. You had me at Zelazny and Brunner and (especially) Delany - that under-acknowledged proto-cyberpunker.
From: kellan (Apr 16 2012, at 18:51)
Okay, so what was up with her taking her sister's name? She signs her pledge as Morganna which is your first hint. Just odd? Something deeper?