Monday, July 23, 2012

Among Others by Jo Walton

There was an epic contest between good and evil. Twins Mor and Mori, with the help of the faeries, faced down their mother, the Evil Queen, as she made a bid for world domination. The consequences were tragic . . . but all of this is actually just back-story for the book Among Others by Jo Walton.

Mori ran away from home after her sister died. She ends up in the care of her father (a man she doesn't even remember) and his three controlling sisters, who send her to boarding school. At school, she is an outsider -- because she is Welsh, because she is crippled, because her mother's family is not wealthy -- and she longs for acceptance, not from her schoolmates, but from a group of like-minded individuals with whom she can discuss books and the other things that she finds meaningful in life. She longs for this so much that she uses a little bit of magic -- and though the results are all she could wish, she finds herself conflicted. Is she really any better than her mother, using magic for her own ends?

Written in diary format, this is first and foremost a paean to books -- the science fiction and fantasy stories that Mori reads incessantly, the books that keep her company in her loneliest times, that entertain and console and educate her, that make her think and question, that make her embrace life. Readers unfamiliar with classic sci-fi may not understand a lot of the references, but the heart of the story is more about loving books than about knowing science fiction.

And then there are the faeries -- the magical denizens of forests and ruins. The main plot of the story, interwoven into the tale of Mori's life at boarding school, her personal reflections on growing up, and her comments on her voracious reading, is of Mori and magic, Mori and the faeries, and the things that Mori must do if she is to work only on the side of goodness. Despite the fact that Mori believes implicitly in the faeries, the existence and prevalence of magic in Mori's world is ultimately left up to the reader. Is Mori's mother a witch, or just insane? Do Mori's aunts keep her father under their thumb with a little genteel magic, or has he just given up? Does Mori bring the book club into being with her spell, or was it there all along?

Personal anecdote time: when I was a few years younger than Mori is in the book, I attended a particularly heinous private school, and I survived by reading (in the halls, in class, on the bus, etc.) -- so much so that, in my yearbook, another student wrote, "I'll miss seeing you read books." I think any bookish outsider will immediately identify with Mori on that level, even if, as with me, sci-fi is only a peripheral interest. I might have loved this book more if I had read everything Mori does -- but even without sharing her tastes, I was completely absorbed in her story, and I highly recommend this book.

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