I'll say this - Jo Walton does deserve some praise and respect. Not only does Among Others break free of many of fantasy and sci-fi's traditional tropes, it does so through crisp and readable writing. It deals with issues in a way that doesn't feel like it's "Dealing with Issues". It has characters who are foreign and local, straight and gay, disabled, complicated, realistic. Unfortunately, much as I read through it with some degree of interest, the book ultimately disappointed. Really disappointed. Not simply because of some weird stylistic choices Walton made, or because of the book's structure, or the general lack of characterization, or even because of the extremely weak and frustrating ending (though this is the primary reason). At the end of the day, Among Others read like a blog, not a novel. And I'm sorry to say that sometimes that's just a bad thing.
There were a lot of reasons I read Among Others late into the night. The style is very brisk, very contemporary, very... believable. Even with the fantasy elements, even as it's infused with a healthy dose of sci-fi fandom, Among Others is written in a natural teen tone, with natural thoughts and feelings and behaviors, all expressed extremely believably. Sometimes even too believably. Mori thinks and writes about her love of sci-fi, the fairies she sees, her family, sexual thoughts, friendships and more. The flat-written parts of Mori's diary were utterly realistic, but they were interspersed with that all-too-familiar nonsense of having quoted speech in what is supposed to be a diary. The real-time versus post-time storytelling felt skewed and awkward, as it usually does in "recorded" stories.
But then there's the matter of the story. And the characters. Because my true frustration and disappointment from Among Others stems from here. The entire first half of Among Others builds a general background story for Mori to live in - we are introduced to her family dynamic, her fantasy world, her status as a "cripple" (which we know is from a relatively recent accident). We're introduced to half sketched characters - Mori's sci-fi loving father, her trio of utterly personality-less aunts, both her grandfathers, her "close" aunt from her mother's side, her schoolmates, her friends... and of course, her absent mother. These characters are loosely drawn at the best of times, having a clearly defined personality trait for the sake of "character", but not much beyond. The characters fit in nicely as background items, but though they certainly felt believable, I never felt like I could understand them fully. Their motivations are unclear. Their behaviors are inconsistent. Believable, yes. But not real.
Place these characters in strategic locations and you'd expect to get a plot. But there's no plot. There's a bit of story, yes - Mori's struggles to fit in at school, to find friends in her sci-fi book club, to move past the accident that left her disabled, the accident that killed her twin sister, to avoid all contact with her mother... These are story elements, but when Walton tries to tie them together to form a plot, the whole thing sort of collapses. The entire premise of the final magical climax felt utterly ridiculous, so baseless, that I was certain my library's digital copy must be damaged. I was certain there must have been parts missing, because nothing in the ending felt remotely developed. Quite frankly, it fell from the sky, and not in a good way. And the final lines were even worse, a clumsy attempt at resolving everything that really resolved nothing. I finished the book and wanted to throw it. Really. Throw it.
Is magic meant here as a metaphor? Probably. Is Mori's love of sci-fi meant to show us of her desire to find new and better worlds to live in? Maybe. Does it come together to form a cohesive novel? Absolutely not. Among Others has some wonderful, brilliant moments scattered throughout, but I cannot by any means refer to it as a good book. It's nostalgic in the best of ways and it's given me a lot of classic sci-fi book recommendations, but I have no idea beyond the nostalgia and perhaps Mori's believable voice as to why it's received such high accolades. Yes, it's a brave book (to a certain degree), with the way it uses magic and sci-fi and the characters it includes and some of the half-themes it houses, but I won't pretend that overall it was anything other than a disappointment. I would love to see what Walton does with a real plot and some better developed characters, but Among Others? Just a shame.