Growing up surrounded by books is like growing up surrounded by friends. At least, while you’re enjoying the experience of reading them, and then when you fondly look back upon them, they can seem like good friends. Fifteen-year-old Morwenna (Mori) Phelps is a bookworm extraordinaire. This novel is told in the form of her journal entries. It is a magical novel, one of the best YA books I’ve read, not just this year, but ever. She and her twin sister grew up in Wales, raised mostly by relatives after their parents separated and their mother went mad. Mori’s twin sister is never far from her mind. Her leg and foot became crippled and her twin sister died trying to stop a magical spell their mother was working. It was an end of the way of life Morwenna had always known, a wholeness she had felt, being a twin. But an end is not the end–it merely marks the beginning of another part of one’s life.
In Wales, fairies live, or did when Morwenna and her sister were growing up. Fairies like one of the few who are given names in the book, Glorfindel, aren’t generally very communicative, but Morwenna learns their language and can translate it into English. Life isn’t all grand in the Wales of the late 1970’s. Morwenna writes about the rough life of the coal miners, and how many people lost jobs when factories closed. She and her sister believe that they are responsible for the closing of one such factory because of a spell they worked, which polluted the environment: “The Phurnacite factory in Abercwmboi killed all the trees for two miles around.”
After her sister’s death, not wanting to remain anywhere close to her mother any more, Morwenna runs away to be with her father, Daniel, in England, and his three sisters. The sisters, her aunts, are very wealthy, and though none of them were expecting Morwenna to enter their lives, they welcome her and pay for her to be enrolled at an exclusive boarding school. She makes a few friends there, but most of the girls can from families with a lot of money, including some with royal blood. They look down on her, both for being Welsh and for being crippled, and call her names like “Taffy,” “Crip,” and “Hopalong.”
However, Morwenna does well in all of her classes, except not as well in “maths,” and this adds points to her school “house,” Scott, named after the poet Sir Walter Scott. Most of the girls at the boarding school are more concerned about athletics than academics, but they are also concerned with how well their house does against the others, much like the teen wizards of J.K. Rowling’s Hogwarts. She also uses a portion of the money her father sends her (she usually refers to him as “Daniel,” because she knows so little about him, other than their shared love of books) to buy a couple of her friends honey buns from a local bakery. She learns that there are fairies in England, too, though they are even more elusive than in Wales.
What I loved about Among Others, besides Jo Walton’s “bril” (brilliant) writing, are the many references to the SF, Fantasy, and other books that Morwenna reads and writes about in her diary entries. Whether you have heard of or read the authors and books she mentions or not won’t affect your pleasure in reading Among Others, but if you have read them, or at least some of them, you can feel an even greater kinship to Morwenna. Just a few authors she reads are Samuel Delany, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Kurt Vonnegut, Jr., Robert Heinlein, James Tiptree, Jr., and Ursula K. Le Guin. She also reads Shakespeare, The Communist Manifesto by Karl Marx, Plato, and other non-SF and Fantasy works of literature, but I really liked in particular comparing which SF and Fantasy books we’ve both read.
Morwenna travels to the nearest library, but she discovers that it closes at noon on Saturdays, the only free day she has available to go there. Besides closing so early on Saturdays, a librarian there tells her that since she is a non-resident, she must obtain signed letters from the school saying she needs to use the library because the schools’ library is insufficient, and she needs to get a signed letter from a parent. She does get the required letters, and then enjoys going to the library very much. The interlibrary loans, which allow her to get books from other libraries around the country, allow her access to many books by authors that are no longer in print, but are still wonderful to read:
“Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the world and a glory of civilization. Libraries really are wonderful. They’re better than bookshops, even. I mean bookshops make a profit on selling you books, but libraries just sit there lending you books quietly out of the goodness of their hearts.”
The type of magic in Among Others is not the type found in the Harry Potter novels. You can’t just say a spell, conjure up a potion, or wave a wand and get immediate results. The magic works just the same, but might seem to be more like coincidence, or happen over time, like something that would have happened anyway–but, it does work, nevertheless, and is no less magical even if it might seem to be coincidence to others.
Among Others blends the very real experiences of high school like fitting in, dating, cheating, and holidays, with science fiction and magic. It’s an incredible book that can be enjoyed by people of any age, and it will definitely be a source of other friends–er, books–that you will want to read and make a part of your own life. If you love books (and who doesn’t?) you owe it to yourself to give this very bril book by Jo Walton a read and add it to your own library!