Saturday, July 7, 2012

Book review: Among Others by Jo Walton

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…

This was a really interesting book; reading it felt like an adventure. I don’t think it can be accurately described as ‘magical realism,’ at least not in the way I usually think of it, where magical/supernatural occurrences are presented as being the reality of the setting. Rather, this is the story of a girl who is so deeply connected to fantasy and science fiction stories that she applies the fantastical possibilities therein to her own world. Her magic, she explains, isn’t like the magic we read about though, with its spells that are cast from grimoires. It’s more like a re-arranging of the world and time so that things come to pass. If she wishes for the bus to come early, magic makes it so that the bus actually did leave earlier so that she perceives it coming to her earlier. Or when she wishes for friends, the universe doesn’t just make people start liking her; instead, she finds out about a book club that meets weekly to discuss SF.

It’s written in a diary format, and in addition to the ‘entries’ about what is actually happening in her life, we also get witty, insightful, and amusing reflections on the books Mori is reading, and her thoughts about the authors. This is a protagonist that lives to read and gain wisdom from these stories. This book has been called “a love letter to SF books and those who read and write them” and, more generally, “a book about books.” It’s true — these novels are Mori’s solace, and when she talks about any of your favorites (and if you read SF, she WILL mention at least one of yours) you’ll feel a connection and spark of happiness that somehow seems more substantial than the passing bemusement of having your fandom namedropped. You just know she takes it seriously.

Beyond all of the meta SF adoration and in jokes, the sections about Mori herself, and her family, and her interactions with other people, are hilarious, touching, sad, wistful, and suspenseful. This was one of those books that, like Angela’s Ashes, manages to turn some pretty depressing scenes and themes into something altogether different — transcendent, in a way. And yet, even though I just made the Angela’s Ashes comparison, this book is really nothing like that book, or any other book I’ve read. I highly recommend it, and especially if you’re into fantasy and SF, but even if you’re not, because it’s just a good story with a strong literary voice.

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