Among Others – Jo Walton

IMG_0550.JPGSummary (Amazon): Startling, unusual, and yet irresistibly readable, Among Others is at once the compelling story of a young woman struggling to escape a troubled childhood, a brilliant diary of first encounters with the great novels of modern fantasy and SF, and a spellbinding tale of escape from ancient enchantment.

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…

Combining elements of autobiography with flights of imagination in the manner of novels like Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude, this is potentially a breakout book for an author whose genius has already been hailed by peers like Kelly Link, Sarah Weinman, and Ursula K. Le Guin.

My Review (Spoilers):

Executive Summary: magical

This book was actually a recommendation from my husband who read it earlier this year (not sure who recommended it to him though or I’d give them a high five). It really appealed to me in a variety of ways. The book is a fantasy book, but it’s also a “real” story of a girl going about her life with a crazy mom, a dad she never knew, and a physical disability. And she’s a bit anti-social and loves to read, specifically science fiction and fantasy. (I can relate). As an aside, throughout the story, she talks about all the books that she is reading, and I have a separate post coming with a list of those books. It’s impressive.

The book starts off with twins Morwenna and Morganna at the Phurnacite factory. The girls throw flowers into the pool outside the factory because the fairies told them that it would kill the factory. Nothing happens, and they reluctantly return home. However, the next day in the newspaper, they read that the Phurnacite plant is closing.

The book then shifts to Morwenna (Mori) at a later age, with her father and her father’s 3 sisters who are impossible to tell apart, getting ready for school. Her father had run off on her mother shortly after she and her sister were born, and she had lived with her mother ever since. Something bad has happened involving her mother, her sister, and her, but the reader doesn’t fully know what until much later in the story.

Mori is prepping for her start at a new school, Arlinghurst, where her aunts went. They are buying her all her gear for school, and things get a little awkward when it comes to shoes. She has to buy special orthopedic shoes after the accident, not the approved ones that her school wants. She walks with a cane, one that she got from her “Grandpar”, and she’s worried about how school is going to go, specifically as the school is focused on a lot of sports.

Mori and her mother’s side of the family is from Wales, and that’s where she grew up. Her school, and her home where she is currently living with her father and aunts, is in England.

As Mori never really grew up with her father, she knows almost nothing about him. No one in the family spoke of him, and her mother cut him out of all of the photos that she had of him. Mori discovers that Daniel (her father) really likes books. He reads a lot of science fiction, and most of their relationship actually centers on that. Daniel is actually the half brother to the aunts. Their father was the rich one, and his father was a Polish Jew that their mother met helping during WW2. Daniel manages their estate, but the sisters give him some money, and they are the ones paying for Mori’s school. He’s been living there in that situation since he left Mori’s mother. Mori realizes that the situation is pretty awkward for all involved.

Arlinghurst is in a field. It’s not beautiful like the Welsh valleys (which I haven’t seen but the description sounds enticing). There were lots of fairies in Wales, but there don’t seem to be any in Arlinghurst. On top of that, school is pretty miserable, especially for the new girl who is foreign and crippled. Mori makes a few friends with other “outsiders”–Deirdre (Irish) and Sharon (Jewish) and a girl in her chemistry class, Gill, who is in a different house (Mori switched her schedule to get chemistry with a different house. The whole house thing just reminds me of Harry Potter because I have no other British School system references!). And Mori befriends the librarian, Miss Carroll, as she spends a lot of time there when the other girls are doing gym and sports.

During a break at school, Mori wanders around the ground to see if she can find any fairies. She concentrates and manages to attract one who warns her of “Danger!”. Soon she begins receiving letters from her mother with pictures inside where Mori has been burned out. Just like the childhood photos with her father.

On Saturdays, they are allowed to leave the school and go into town. Mori discovers that there is a library there that will do interlibrary loans (which her father signed for her for), and she maximizes that as much as possible since the school library does not have as much science fiction as she would like. Also, Mori orders books the same way that my dad does. He takes that page in a book he likes that lists a bunch of other books and then he orders those.

School in general proceeds fairly consistently bad, and then it is time for half-term. Mori spends some time with her father and meets her grandfather, Sam. He lives in London, and Mori likes him very much. After the trip, she took the train back to Wales to visit her Auntie Teg and her Grandpar, who is in a nursing home after his stroke that he had after “the accident”.

While back in Wales, Mori went to some old ruins she and her sister used to visit. While there, she saw the fairies she knew, specifically Glorfindel. He convinces her that she needs to go to Minos’s Labyrinth (an old iron mine) the following day, which is Halloween. She abides, collecting many oak leaves along the way. She put the leaves in front of the entrance, and suddenly many ghosts appear, picking up a leaf like a ticket as they passed into the entrance. Mori recognized an old man from her grandfather’s nursing home, and then she saw her sister. They clung to each other but Glorfindel convinced Mori to let her sister pass over. Reluctantly, she did.

The twins’ mother tried to gain control of the fairies before the accident. She didn’t succeed but that doesn’t mean she won’t try again. Most people don’t see the fairies because they don’t believe in them. And some children stop believing in them and then stop seeing them.

Mori returns to school, and it’s more of the same. Deirdre returns to being her friend, but everyone else still thinks she’s a communist (due to her Russian-sounding name), a lesbian, or a witch. And I thought my junior high experience was rough.

Mori starts using some magic. She creates a protection around herself because she felt her mother visiting her one night.

Gill misconstrues Mori’s friendliness as something more, and creates an awkward situation between them.

And then, because she already did some magic and she’s lonely, she does some magic to create a karass for herself (a karass is from Cat’s Cradle by Vonnegut and is a group of people who are genuinely connected to each other). But then she feels guilty for doing magic because it upsets the balance of things.

The following Saturday when she goes to the town library to pick up her loans, the librarian tells her about their SF (science fiction) book club that meets every Tuesday as he sees that is most of the books she requests. She is delighted but also worried about her use of magic.

She doesn’t get her dad’s signature before the following Tuesday (because it’s 1979 and there’s no internet yet), but the school librarian agrees to take her to the book club. Mori has a great time and meets some others her own age including a very handsome boy!

The following Saturday in town, she runs into the other girl from the SF club, whose name is Janine. Janine gives her the scoop about the others in the book club. Janine used to be dating Pete, not the other boy Hugh, but they broke up because of a situation involving the handsome boy (whose name is Wim). Wim was thrown out of school and is now doing college part time. There was a scandal involving him getting a girl pregnant, and she had to have an abortion. (Janine and Pete broke up because Pete defended Wim and said it was the girl’s fault.)

Mori continues to hate school and love book club. They decide to do a Christmas meeting of The Dark is Rising which I loved when I was younger. I must reread it though because I don’t remember much about it. She meets Janine and Hugh in town the following Saturday so that Janine can loan her the books. Hugh waits with her for the bus back to school, and Gill looks at her with contempt. School’s winding down for the semester, and Mori gets good marks in everything but math, but really she only is caring about the book club. They meet to discuss The Dark is Rising and then head to the pub after where she begins to talk to Wim while the others are discussing Star Wars. They begin to realize they have very similar tastes, and Greg, the librarian, tells Mori it’s time to leave.

Mori passes out all her presents for Christmas break and heads to her father’s. Her Christmas gift from her aunts is that she is to have her ears pierced, but Mori somehow knows that getting her ears pierced will stop her from being able to do magic. And with that, she realizes that the aunts know that and they are magical. They have been casting some sort of spell over her father to keep him there, and as Mori is never allowed in the kitchen, she realizes that is probably where the magic is happening. She manages to make it to her Aunt Teg’s house unscathed (albeit not without some valiant attempts by the aunts). She tries to find fairies while in Wales to ask about the karass magic, but she doesn’t see any, but she does see her sister’s ghost. Mori talks to her for a while and learns that the fairies are taking care of her. A fairy appears and tells her, “Doing is doing.”, gives her a new cane,  and then both the fairy and her sister disappear.

Mori returns to school. At the book club, she agrees to meet Wim the following Saturday to borrow a book from him. Then Mori goes to the hospital for an outpatient appointment for her leg and the doctor has determined it’s too bad, and she needs a week in traction. She only has a few books with her, and no one knows that she is in there. Eventually Miss Carroll tracks her down and lets everyone know, so many of her book club friends turn up to visit her and bring books. Wim eventually turns up and reveals that his girlfriend works in the laundry at Arlinghurst. Still, Mori reveals to him that her mom actually is a witch and that magic is a real thing that she will prove to him when she gets out of the hospital.

Daniel comes and takes her home to recover. Mori calls her grandfather who comes to see her. He suggests acupuncture for her, and her first session goes well and she returns to school. She has a lot more friends when she returns to school (kids are weird). The next book club, Mori arranges to meet Wim the following Saturday to show him the fairies. Before they go to see the fairies, he tells her the situation with the girl that caused him to be kicked out of school. She told everyone that she was pregnant before even telling him, and when she got the pregnancy test, she wasn’t even pregnant. Mori doesn’t seem that upset about it, and they go to see if they can find any fairies. Fairies tend to like areas of human ruins so they find a nearby location. Wim can see them when he holds her cane–the one the fairy gave her. Mori also confesses to doing the spell for the karass, and tells what happened with her mother and sister. FINALLY!

Their mother was trying to do some large magic to get power to take over the world. The fairies told them what to do to stop it. Their mother used illusions to convince them that things were coming at them, and they thought that the car that hit them was just one of their mother’s illusions. It wasn’t. Mori was injured, and her sister was in a coma until their mother took her off life support. Grandpar had a stroke, and then Mori ran away.

Mori and Wim meet one Saturday in town, and Karen tells Mori that she saw him with the girl from the kitchen dancing at a disco. (Hehe disco.) It turns out that Wim set it up so that Mori would be confronted about whether to stay or leave him. When she realizes that she has a choice in the matter, she realizes that it wasn’t the magic of the karass that brought them together. They plan to ride the train together to her acupuncture appointment later that week.

But surprise, her dad shows up to drive her, and she has to confess that she is dating Wim and see if her dad will also drive him. But luckily everything goes pretty smoothly. They talk about books mostly, and Daniel admits that he approves. School break begins the following day, and Daniel suggests inviting Wim to tea. They go for a walk around the house where a fairy tells Mori to “Go. Join”. She leaves the following day for Wales sans Wim.

Upon arrival in Wales, Mori goes looking for Glorfindel and finds him. He tells her that some of the fairies are ghosts, but some of them are “being”. He needs her help to open a gate which she has to do using blood. He also tells her that her mother won’t be able to hurt her after she opens this gate. She goes up to the location at sunset and finds her sister’s ghost and all the fairies there. She begins to cut her thumb, but she is stopped. It becomes apparent that the fairies expect her to sacrifice herself and join her sister. She considers it but realizes how much she has to live for now, and is able to resist. She hurls her sister into the gap she has made, which presumably allows her into her appropriate place in the afterlife.

Mori begins her walk back toward Auntie Teg’s and comes across her mother. Her mother tries to convince her to  join her, but Mori is exhausted by what just happened, and just walks away. Her mother starts tearing pages out of Lord of the Rings and throwing them at her. As they are thrown, they become spears, but Mori is more offended by her mother’s destruction of the book. Mori used her own magic to turn the spears into trees, so that every one her mother hurled at her became a tree. She continues walking away from her crazy mother, turning the spears into trees. When she reaches the bus stop, she finds Wim, Daniel, and Sam. She realizes that she has made the right decisions, and will continue to live her life as best as she can.

Verdict: 4 Stars

I’m not sure this book is for everyone, but it really related to me. I read a ton as a kid. I was also hospitalized regularly. Also I found Mori’s no nonsense attitude to be very entertaining.

One of my favorite bits of the book: “We finished early and all went to the pub. ‘I’ll buy you and orange juice,’ Greg said to me. I didn’t say I hate Britvic orange, I said ‘Thank you.’ Who says I have no social graces?”

I have compiled a list of books that were listed in this book, and I have three already in the queue to read because of this. And I’m definitely bringing this to the book swap we do at book club.



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Filed under 4 stars, Book Review

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