January 27, 2011

Among Others

Among Others
Jo Walton


(January 27, 2011)

A brilliant and realistic fantasy novel set in late 20th-century Wales, where young Morwenna Phelps has recently lost her identical twin sister, her name, her ability to walk without a limp. and perhaps her family. In the wreckage of what might be seen as an automobile accident (but might also be a titanic magical duel), she is sent off with a father she scarcely knows to an English boarding school where she is the Barbarian Outsider. There, she does not care that she is not loved as long as she is feared. As she always has, Mor takes refuge in books. She tells us all about them. The cruelties of school girls and school dinners don’t matter nearly as much as her discovery of James Tiptree, Jr.’s secret.

Jo Walton dexterously explores a fresh formulation of magic, one that admits the possibility of magic all around us while not contradicting our common experiences or turning the protagonist into the Chosen One. Morwenna has already saved the world. She was crippled, her twin sister Morganna died. That’s past. This is what happens later.

Among Others portrays its characters through the books they were reading in the fall of 1979, and by how they talk about those books. In the process, Walton builds a stirring case for the role and use of science fiction, historical fiction, and fantasy. This is a book for people who read, people who go to ReaderCon, people who know why Donaldson is not Tolkien, why Asimov’s lack of style does not really matter, why so many of us could love Chip Delaney and also Roger Zelazny, Ursula Le Guin and also Larry Niven.

(Warning: the inside flap copy contains a borderline spoiler. Don’t read it.)

Several crucial scenes take place in meetings of a public library’s Tuesday night science fiction club. Gaining access to this meeting was no small task, requiring letters, permission slips, and a spell; the meeting serves, formally, as the Hero’s Last Sanctuary, this book’s pause at Minas Tirith before the march to Pelennor. This is a book that’s going to be discussed at many such meetings for many years.