by Jo Walton
Reviewed by Galen Strickland
There will be some comments about this book that could be interpreted as negative, but they aren't really. It's a very good book, with an interesting character going through a coming of age crisis that should be recognizable to many, even if they aren't fifteen year old girls. Among Others won both the Hugo and Nebula this year for best novel, and has also been nominated for a World Fantasy Award, which will be decided by November 4. [EDIT: it didn't win.] While good, I'm not sure it is that good, but I haven't read any of the other nominated works yet. There are two different main elements to the story, one of which I found interesting, but the other one took up more time and is likely what received the most attention from other readers and writers.
It is told in first person, through the diary entries of Morwenna Phelps, a Welsh-born girl who finds herself in an English boarding school after she runs away from her mother and takes refuge with her estranged father. He is subject to the whims of his three sisters who hold the purse-strings of the family fortune. Morwenna concludes that she is sent away to school because her aunts don't want her around. She is overjoyed to find that her father's library is well stocked with SF and fantasy titles, a lot of which she has already read, others he suggests she will probably like. This is the element that I think has received a lot of attention. Morwenna name-checks a lot of my favorite authors and books. She loves Tolkien, Vonnegut, Robert Silverberg, Samuel R. Delany, Roger Zelazny, John Brunner, Heinlein, Le Guin and Tiptree. She doesn't like Philip K. Dick, and has some harsh things to say about Stephen Donaldson and Terry Brooks, although she hasn't read those last two. She is mainly upset that the promotions for their books had the audacity to compare them to Tolkien. The events in the novel span a period of approximately five months, in the fall and winter of 1979-80. I am sure all the comments about the books are personal opinions of Ms. Walton, since she would have been that age then, and they were probably on her reading list at that time. This is nice, establishing the protagonist as another SF geek, but it is the less interesting part for me.
I was more concerned with Morwenna's tragic family life. Her father abandoned his wife when Morwenna and her twin sister Morganna were infants. Her mother became very bitter, mad, possibly even insane. The girls spent a lot of time away from her, and when not with their grandparents or aunts, they wandered the hills and valleys of South Wales, and they became familiar with the faerie spirits that dwelt there. They learned a bit of magic, but so did their mother. She apparently was fanatical about gaining as much power as possible, which frightened the girls so much they attempted to defeat her with their own magic. Tragically, Morganna was killed and Morwenna crippled in an auto accident she was sure her mother caused. These events are briefly mentioned from time to time in Morwenna's diary, but the main story begins approximately a year later. I will have to read this book again to clarify some things, but there is a possibility that the magic Morwenna speaks of is only in her imagination. It is also possible she is schizophrenic. If I'm not mistaken, the only ones who mention Morganna are Morwenna and some of the faeries. Perhaps Morwenna is an only child, not a twin, and she created that illusion to make her mother seem more evil than she really is. The accident that crippled her could have been simply an accident, not the result of magic.
The magic that Morwenna speaks of is very subtle, not the casting of spells with chants and potions. Some of the things she thinks she has accomplished are likely simple coincidences. She is fascinated with Vonnegut's concept of a karass, a group of people bound together by a mutual need or purpose. She thinks she has caused one to form when she wishes for friends who share her love of books, and shortly thereafter she learns of an SF book club that meets weekly at the local library. She worries that her desire and her magic has caused all of the other people's lives to change just to meet her needs. In this way, the book can be read as a common coming of age tale about a lonely, misunderstood girl, disregarding any magical elements. Or believe in the magic as Morwenna does, your choice. The book works either way, and that is its strength. My only complaint is that if the magic is real, then the eventual showdown between Morwenna and her mother is completely anti-climactic. Either her mother has no magical power, or Morwenna has gained a significant amount, or the encounter is colored by Morwenna's fantasies concerning her powers. But that weak spot is balanced by a very positive ending, with Morwenna stronger-willed, vowing to tackle life as it comes, without magic, only her considerable intelligence and wit.
Regardless of how some of my comments might seem, I do recommend this book. Being written in first person it does have the usual limitations, the main one is we only know what Morwenna tells us. But she is such a fascinating girl it is well worth the effort to get to know her and take her at her word, and the next time I read it I might even believe in the magic.
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