Is it magic or is it mimetic? (Being a review of Jo Walton’s Among Others)

There are a lot of coming-of-age stories in fantasy. They’re a staple of the genre; some might go so far as to say a cliché. But Among Others (excerpt available here) is far from your father’s fantasy Bildungsroman, and not just because it transfers the story of a girl growing up to more-or-less modern-day Wales.

In fact, it’s not really a Bildungsroman at all. Nor, despite featuring a sixteen-year-old heroine, is it a coming-of-age story. Because as the story starts, our heroine has already come of age. This is a book that concerns itself far more with surviving trauma and finding a place in the world than with finding one’s self.  Morwenna Phelps has already faced her worst monster, emerging scarred for life, with an indeterminate victory that cost the life of her twin sister.

That monster is her mother, a woman who dabbled in black magic and felt perfectly justified in bending anyone she chose to her will. As we join Mor, she has been taken in by her estranged father and his three controlling sisters, and she is about to be packed off to boarding school in England. (She has grown up in Wales, which reminds me of a children’s book I loved when I was little.)

We quickly learn that when Mor ran away from her mother, she brought very little with her except a satchel full of books. Books are her most precious treasure, and she has been delighted to learn that her father, too, is a reader. It’s something she has in common with this man she knows almost nothing about.

Those books will remain her chief retreat at school, where she stands out because of her lame leg, her intellect, and her nationality—with predictable results for a girl surrounded by other teenaged girls. It’s a story of alienation that many geeks can identify with. Walton doesn’t pull her punches, finding a level of emotional honesty that rings with truth.

Mor is oblivious to the outside world in a way I found very convincing for a teenager. She is not a TV watcher, and it seems nobody in her family is. She is largely apolitical. All she cares about is the worlds that books can take her to. They are her armor and her comfort.

Through Mor, we experience the wonders of one of the great ages of speculative fiction afresh, as she reads Heinlein and Le Guin, Zelazny and Cooper, and interacts with them not as a critic pursuing an agenda but as a bright, engaged reader awakening to the possibilities of literature and the world.  Meanwhile, Mor’s mother—defeated but not destroyed—begins attempting to contact her. And Mor starts to wonder if there isn’t somebody else in the world who is bookish and odd like her and her father, and sets out to find them.

The magic in Among Others is of the subtle variety, the sort that can easily be dismissed by observers as confabulation and magical thinking. And indeed, there’s very little in the book to contradict the possibility that it is just the imaginings of a traumatized girl seeking power. There are fairies, but most people can’t see them. There is spellcasting, but its results present themselves as coincidence. There is dark hunting magic, but it comes in the form of letters with burned-out photos within.

The voice is sublime; the characters nuanced. It reminds me of Diana Wynne Jones’s Charmed Life in the matter-of-factness with which its protagonist deals with an uncompromisingly difficult world. This is natural, of course—both books arise out of the same British tradition of boarding-school books that spawned Harry Potter. Which is not to say that this book is in any way derivative of Rowling’s work, or Jones’s—rather that all three grow from the same root. It also in some ways reminds me of Pamela Dean’s legendary novel Tam Lin.

In any case, I think this is Walton’s best book to date.

Elizabeth Bear is the two-time Hugo-winning author of Grail, The Sea thy Mistress, and a bunch of other things.


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