Among Others by Jo Walton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
Among Others is the fourth of the 2011 Nebula nominees that I've read. Unfortunately, it falls into the category into which I placed "The City & The City" a couple of years ago -- while it's really well written, it's not clear it's fantasy or science fiction.
With the tragic confrontation involving the narrator (Mori), her mother and her identical twin sister taking place near the start of the narrative (but not re-told directly on the page), I expected to see some sort of Harry Potter-like book. In other words, something magical happened that set the stage for a book full of magic. But that's not what happened.
Instead, you get a coming-of-age tale that's more about science fiction than it is science fiction. In particular, a lot is said about the Mori's opinions of various sf from the 1970s and earlier, but for much of the book there's a nagging feeling that the Mori is imagining the fantasy elements.
This may be a weird comparison, but I kept thinking of a book I read when I was around Mori's age -- Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy from Mars, by Daniel Pinkwater. My memory is a bit fuzzy, but as I recall, Alan seems in the first part of the book like this weird new kid in town who tells everybody he's from Mars. For all you know, you're reading something with as much sf/fantasy content as a Judy Blume novel (not that there's anything wrong with that).
But then Daniel Pinkwater commits to the weirdness. Of course, Alan Mendelsohn is really from Mars, and you have the mind control and planar travel and aliens and whatnot. It may not be a great book, but it's definitely sf.
Among Others by contrast is really well done, but I'm afraid if it wins the Nebula or the Hugo it will only be because the tale of a geeky kid who loves reading science fiction will really speak to the voters. It's a very enjoyable book, but voting it the best sf/fantasy novel of the year would be like voting a restaurant the best Japanese restaurant just because they serve miso soup on Mondays.
On the twin front (spoilers ahead), Walton gets credit for handling the death of a twin much better than, say, Avatar. It's a sensitive portrayal of the emotional swings Mori goes through in coming to accept her sister's death. At one point Mori signs something using her sister's name. I couldn't tell whether that was a subtle emotional tell, or a mistake by the author. I should probably assume the former.
I was hoping to complete the fifth Nebula nominee, Mechanique: A Tale of the Circus Tresaulti before the awards were announced. I just looked, however, and the awards were announced last weekend. Oh, look, Among Others won. Boo. I could have accepted more easily if Mechanique had won. So far it's not really to my tastes, but it's an interesting and inventive approach to sf/fantasy. Among Others, on the other hand, is a well-written book that doesn't really have a clear place in the genre.
That's no criticism of Ms. Walton -- I think it's great that people write books that don't fit squarely in one genre or another. But it wouldn't have been on my ballot. (You know, if I were eligible to vote.) I'll still finish Mechanique -- it's enjoyable, and it's paid for, and then I'll probably go back to The Healer's War, the 1988 winner, which I've already started. Not much time for reading these days, though.