Jo Walton’s Among Others is the 1979 diary of Mori, a 15-year-old Welsh girl. As we gradually pick up bits of her history (because who would write down an entire narrative in a private diary?), we learn that she and her twin sister stopped her mentally-ill mother from ruling the world through black fairy magic, but that they suffered an accident in which Mori’s sister was killed and her own leg was severely injured. We also learn that Mori is a constant reader, mostly science fiction and fantasy but also history and classic literature. And that those two things — the fairy magic and the books — are equally important, equally serious, equally real — in her life.
As the book opens, Mori has been sent to an English boarding school, because her mother is no longer fit to care for her (if she ever was.) She has hours free to read, because she can’t participate in games and her lessons are easy for her, and many of her diary entries consist of brief analyses of the SF books she’s consuming wholesale. (There are never any plot summaries — only social, ethical, and stylistic questions that arise. If you haven’t read the book she’s discussing, you’re very much invited to.) But she’s an outsider, and completely alone, not knowing how to access her familiar magic (in Wales, fairies speak Welsh, but they won’t speak to her here in England at all) or how to make friends or where to look for people who like the same things she does. She needs wisdom and protection, and at first she finds it nowhere. Eventually, through magic (or not — this is left completely ambiguous), Mori finds a community, advisors, and new strength, but she still has to count on her own power to serve her in a final conflict with her mother’s dark forces.
I was trying to think through the difference between magic and not-magic in this book. It’s a bit tricky to determine. It’s not as if, for instance, books are “real life” and magic is separate from that. Walton establishes firmly that magic doesn’t exist without a deep connection to the real world: food you’ve cooked yourself, for instance, or blood, or trees and plants, or wild land that hasn’t been turned into a regulated common. It also has to do with language and belief; so, obviously, do books. Books are a solace and a joy in an otherwise isolated life. They are proof that there are authors whose minds happily meet our own, and proof that there must be other readers, too, who love the same books for the same reasons we do. That real connection is the same kind of connection we have with food, or blood, or land. So is it a sort of magic? Walton offers, I think, the idea that both writing and reading are magic, in a way, and reach back down to a rootedness and connectedness that can refresh and save us, however strong or isolated we are. Yet fairies aren’t actually people, and neither are books. We do need both (books and people, I mean, not fairies and books.)
I didn’t think this novel was flawless. Walton did maybe too good a job making the fairy magic seem ordinary and everyday to us, since it was something Mori grew up with. Then when we came on a really dramatic moment, such as at Halloween or at the end, the strangeness seemed over-the-top: why now? Why wouldn’t Mori know how to handle it? I really liked the discussion of the ethics of magic, but it seemed interestingly out of context for fairy magic, since (as far as I know) fairies have no ethics. I’d have liked to see some discussion of that. And (perhaps on a smaller scale) was Mori’s book-loving boyfriend, Wim, supposed to be a good guy? I thought he was kind of a jerk. Hang in there, Mori, you can do better.
Overall, however, I thought this was a wonderful novel. The tone was perfect, and it was such a joy to see all the books Mori was reading, and her eventual shift from someone alone, isolated by circumstance and pain, to someone connected to a larger community of friends and family, and all through books. It felt like a myth: Persephone coming through hell to be mostly safe on the other side, just a little pomegranate juice on her sleeve. I’m very glad I read it, and I still feel the happy resonance.