Among Others by Jo Walton
Published January 18th 2011 by Tor Books
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Startling, unusual, and yet irresistably readable, Among Others is at once the compelling story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood, a brilliant diary of first encounters with the great novels of modern fantasy and SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.
Raised by a half-mad mother who dabbled in magic, Morwenna Phelps found refuge in two worlds. As a child growing up in Wales, she played among the spirits who made their homes in industrial ruins. But her mind found freedom and promise in the science fiction novels that were her closest companions. Then her mother tried to bend the spirits to dark ends, and Mori was forced to confront her in a magical battle that left her crippled–and her twin sister dead.
Fleeing to her father whom she barely knew, Mori was sent to boarding school in England–a place all but devoid of true magic. There, outcast and alone, she tempted fate by doing magic herself, in an attempt to find a circle of like-minded friends. But her magic also drew the attention of her mother, bringing about a reckoning that could no longer be put off…
Combining elements of autobiography with flights of imagination in the manner of novels like Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, this is potentially a breakout book for an author whose genius has already been hailed by peers like Kelly Link, Sarah Weinman, and Ursula K. Le Guin.
Among Others is set in Wales and England in 1979/1980–essentially just like the real world except that there are fairies and magic. Both are treated as fairly unremarkable by the main character, Mori, who has always been aware of them. The form of magic reminded me slightly of the magic in Diana Wynne Jones’s The Merlin Conspiracy–a force in the natural world that doesn’t have any clear rules for working with it.
The pace of the story is very relaxed, as there is not a lot of action. The book is a diary Mori keeps for about half a year after she’s put into the care of her father, who sends her to boarding school. Initially all we know of her is that there was an incident in which Mori’s twin sister died, which resulted in Mori running away from their mother. Most of the book is driven by wanting to find out what happened and waiting for a confrontation with her mother.
Mori is a great narrator. She’s a huge SF fan, and the book is filled with references to what she’d reading. I’m not sure if having read the books/authors she talks about would affect the story. One of the few I had read was one of Mori’s non-SF reads: I Capture the Castle by Dodie Smith, to which Among Others bears some resemblance (character-driven story told in diary format with a focus on the girl’s eccentric family). And of course I appreciated Mori’s love of libraries (especially interlibrary loan). With such wonderful lines as “Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization,” it’s hard not to like her.