by Jo Walton
After a slightly disappointing Readercon, it was time to reread this wonderful and thoughtful fantasy. After my first reading, I called this:
A brilliant 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 seen as 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. As she always has, Mor takes refuge in books. She tells us all about them. The cruelties of school girls and school dinners doesn’t matter nearly as much as her discovery of James Tiptree, Jr.’s secret.
Mor’s bookishness is wonderful, and the fantasy is worked out with such grace and skill that it really requires no suspension of disbelief. Here, the essential nature of magic is that it’s always deniable. Mor lost her sister, and almost died herself, in a titanic magic duel in which they stood together to defend the world from their mother’s insanity. But, if you prefer to believe another story, the were hit by a car — perhaps Mom’s car though even that’s not entirely clear.
The underlying premise, interestingly, is the same as the premise of another under-appreciated fantasy, Babylon 5: what happens to the hero after the story is over? In Babylon 5, the scouring of the Shire leads to an even greater conflict. Here, it leads to boarding school, a boyfriend, and a terrible decision.