Among Others by Jo Walton
There are certain novels that defy easy description. There is something in them that speaks to our hearts and bypasses words. Among Others is just such a tale. For those of us who grew up with books as our best companions, Walton’s newest story is like a visit from old beloved friends.
Morwenna Phelps has seen her life turned upside down. She and her twin sister Morganna grew up practicing magic and avoiding their half-mad witch of a mother as much as possible. But when their mother tries to work a magic that would have given her immense power, the twins stop her, but at horrible cost. Morganna dies and Morwenna is crippled.
Now Morwenna is in the care of her father, whom she has never met, but who shares her intense love of books. He and her aunts place her in a local boarding school where Mori must struggle to find a way to live in a world far different than the one she had before. As she slowly makes friends and finds a place to belong, she faces that hardest of trials: growing up.
The synopsis just presented is in no way a comprehensive description of this book, or necessarily even a good one. There is simply too much going on here to easily pin it down in a short space. The first and most obvious level is that of a fairy tale. Morwenna and her sister talk to fairies and do their bidding in matters magical. Their mother commits evil acts and must be stopped. Once Morwenna gets to school, she finds few fairies to talk to, but her visits home bring her back into contact with them, and they still need her help. So on one level, this story is one of good against evil.
On another level, this is a coming of age book. Morwenna is separated from everyone and everything that she’s familiar with, and suffers from the awkwardness attendant on such situations. It’s even a literal awkwardness, as her injured leg prevents her from joining in games or sports and garners her some cruel nicknames. In fact, Morwenna is discovering herself as an individual for the first time, since she and her twin were so close. She speaks of how people couldn’t tell them apart, and now she has to evolve as an individual, without that second identity to hide behind, although in some ways she does still manage it.
On yet another level, this story is a love letter to books. Morwenna reminds me a lot of myself as a teenager. I too read a lot, and still do, and like Morwenna I used those stories to hide from the world when it became too much to handle. Morwenna’s habit of talking in book references is quite familiar to me, as I do that as well. The story is filled with references to classic science fiction and fantasy. As this novel takes place in 1979 and early 1980, some books that are classics now were only just being released during the novel’s setting. McCaffrey’s Pern, Zelazny’s Amber, Asimov’s Foundation, LeGuin’s Earthsea—these all make appearances, as well as books that I’ve never even heard of. It puts me in mind of Pearl North’s Libyrinth or Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next books, where stories are held in high esteem.
Going yet deeper, there are certain aspects of this tale which are autobiographical. Walton has written online about how she took things from her own past and wove them into the novel. She too lost a sister (though not a twin), her mother was a paranoid schizophrenic, and she walks with a cane. She’s mythologized these events in her past, with permission from her family. I don’t think that she has done so in an attempt to understand these events or deal with them, but I do think she may have taken some of the meaning that she’s found in her life and used it tell a story.
And I like Morwenna. I really do. Her voice is unique and yet familiar. The novel is written solely in her journal entries, but it has an authentic ring to it and readers should have no problem in getting to know Morwenna. Perhaps readers who, like her, immerse themselves in books will feel more of a connection to her, but I doubt anybody who hasn’t will find it difficult to relate. In fact, if you have a bibliophile in your life and want to gain a bit of insight into their mind, reading this book just might give you the clues you need!
I also appreciated that Morwenna ponders the fact that her magic may have unintended consequences for other people and that she must therefore use it sparingly. It’s a subtle and yet well-drawn commentary on the need to take responsibility for your actions. It’s similar to “be careful what you wish for”, but translated into the real world. Morwenna’s musings on this subject left me with much food for thought.
My hope is that this book gets passed around to as many people as possible, book-lovers or not. It may just encourage the reading of those classic science fiction and fantasy novels that so helped to shape the genre as it gained in popularity. And the multiple layering in the narrative and the plot is a shining example of writing at its best.
Among Others is an outstanding novel that I will be recommending to anybody and everybody. It’s unique, lyrical and thought-provoking. This novel is a gift for those of us who grew up with books and learned to love them as friends.
Also by this author: Tooth and Claw
This review appeared on Owlcat Mountain on January 25, 2011.