Now that I'm two days away from my first reading of Among Others, I want to try to give it a REAL review, because the book deserves it. Hopefully this will turn out to be less me-me-me and a bit more thoughtful. Spoilers to follow.
To start, a bit about Jo Walton--it must be confessed that I have a bad case of geo-envy for her; she is from Wales and now lives in Canada. AAACK. Unfair! Alas, someday. She also blogs at Tor.com (her publisher's site), as well as on her LiveJournal. I am not usually bold enough to comment on either place, but her reviews and personal posts are well worth reading, especially if you love rereading. Her Small Change series (Farthing, Ha'Penny, Half a Crown) is a quite incredible trilogy set in an alternate Britain during World War II; the Sulien books (The King's Peace, The King's Name, and a companion novel The Prize in the Game) are somewhat a retelling of Arthur; Tooth and Claw WAS my favorite of her standalone novels ('til Among Others happened), and it is just wonderful, a Victorian romance of dragons. Lifelode is a bit harder to explain--"domestic fantasy" seems far too essential--but is strange and beautiful and different and very rewarding.
Ok. So. Why Among Others was so good, in the not-all-about-Diana version. Though surely part of the impact of the book for me was that it hit me at the right time, as I am currently wallowing in the pleasure of having found my own karass (two of them, actually). But beyond the gut reaction, Among Others is a delight of craft: plot, style, characters all woven together with pure magic. The book is a stew of genres--fantasy, boarding-school drama, coming-of-age tale--which mix together wonderful well, salted with the steady stream of book titles which will charm any reader. Indeed a bibliography of the books Mori reads would probably end up being a good core collection of science fiction (the librarian in her said thoughtfully). The plot is perhaps a familiar one: teenage girl goes to school among strangers after a great tragedy and grows to find that the world is not as lonely as she thought: but Walton's simultaneously real and other-world of Wales, and the family and acquaintances of Mori, are so well done that the plot seems new again.
Walton's writing is deft, so deft it reads as effortless, as though anyone who loved books like she does could create such a book as Among Others. Where she really excels is with voice. Such a master of voice! None of her many female characters sound like the others; even in the same book, The Prize in the Game, Emer and Elenn are resoundingly different, and Sulien certainly is nothing like Mori or Taveth. Mori's voice is pitch-perfect intelligent, bookish teenager, but such is Walton's craft that there is nothing self-indulgent about her. No words are wasted giving Mori the morose introspection of many teenage protagonists--we know exactly what she thinks about her classmates and friends, how she feels about her father and the beautiful Wim, but this knowledge is derived from precise pieces of dialogue and description rather than paragraphs about how hot Wim is and how much Mori wants to be with him. Mori's voice is a great mix of "brill" (her favorite adjective for good books) and musings about anarchy and utopias and why writers do what they do. Readers will likely find that this is a lot like what their own brains sounded like at age fifteen. Teenage snobbery is especially well-developed among teenagers who read...and it eventually this tendency to read which brings them out of it (hopefully). Mori is a snob, no doubt, being horrified at comparisons of an author she loves to Phillip K. Dick and so forth--but at the same time she reads everything in sight, even the wonderful dross of Xanth!
Ahhh the magic! There is magic in the story, and according to Walton ('ware, authorial intent ahoy!) it is real magic, that is to say, Mori is not insane. Her mother, we find, is a witch and also mad, and Mori's twin was killed in a car accident following the thwarting of mother Liz by the girls. Her mother's magic is powerful, but so is Mori's, and the way it is worked is perfection. Mori remarks at one point that magic is like class--it is easy to say it doesn't exist, but it affects everything and everyone. The fairies with whom Mori converses are real, and unreal, and unlike most other fairies. The ins and outs and moral morasses of magic Mori turns over in her diary; she is serious about magic, as she is about most things, and there is not much wondering about whether or not what she did had an effect. She knows it did. Though she does conduct a few spells or rituals throughout the book, they are not described in detail and this I found satisfactory. Her reasoning for not explaining herself, even in her diary, even in mirror handwriting, is what my reasoning would be.
If there is an overarching theme to Among Others, it is of the power of reading. At the moment of crisis near the book's end, Mori says that if you love books enough, they will love you back. Readers know this: books have power. Books are your weapon and your comfort and your friend. They accompany you when you are lonely, make you laugh when you are sad, teach you lessons of many kinds, show you places, strengthen your imagination and your will. Among Others says, Read everything! Yes, Mori reads "good" books, but--as Walton points out on her journal--she also reads Piers Anthony. A broad exposure to what the library has to offer never hurt anyone, in fact it helps. Even Redwall (which, offense to Watership Down aside, I still devoured). Even If I Pay Thee Not In Gold. Even Twilight. Read! Gorge yourself! A book is humanity's best friend.