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Thursday, February 21, 2013

Among Others by Jo Walton

You can almost always find chains of coincidence to disprove magic. That's because it doesn't happen the way it does in books. It makes those chains of coincidence. That's what it is. It's like if you snapped your fingers and produced a rose but it was because someone on an aeroplane had dropped a rose at just the right time for it to land in your hand. There was a real person and a real aeroplane and a real rose, but that doesn't mean the reason you have the rose isn't because you did the magic. Jo Walton, Among Others. (New York: Tom Doherty Associates, 2010, p. 40.)

I recently read Among Others by Jo Walton. The book won several important awards, including the Hugo, Nebula, and British Fantasy awards, and was a nominee for the World Fantasy Award.

The book consists entirely of the diary of Morwenna Phelps, also known as Morwenna Markova, during the period from September 1979 through February 1980, plus an initial entry from 1975. She is a teenager, in a boarding school. She has been in a terrible accident that took the life of her twin sister, Morganna, and left her with one bad leg, so bad that she isn't required to participate in sports at the school. That's all right with her, because she is a voracious reader, mostly of fantastic literature. I didn't count, but there must have been a few hundred of such books mentioned, mostly read by Morwenna. She gives her opinions of them, and occasionally discusses them with a book club, or with her father. Many of these books are well known even today, and some of the others should be, although they aren't. I suspect that this parading of the history of science-fiction/fantasy, throughout the book, was one of the reasons for the awards that it won. It's a good book, though, lest there be any doubt.
It's a quiet book, and you won't find any armies marching, swordplay, space travel, or desperate wizards going to great lengths to cast spells. The quotation at the beginning of this post describes how magic works in Walton's sub-creation. It works quietly, in the background, as it were. I won't give away any more of the plot than is necessary to discuss a couple of matters. If you are interested in the plot, I recommend these reviews: This review says that Walton's description of magic, which takes the quotation above as its theme, is the most important aspect of the book. This one says that perhaps none of the magic, nor even the accident and the dead twin, are real, but we have a case of an unreliable narrator. This one, and others, indicate that the book is partly biographical. The location and time correspond to Walton's own life. Walton was, and is, somewhat crippled, and read fantastic literature as a teenager.

The first matter to discuss is fairies. Morwenna is able to see, and communicate, with fairies, mostly Welsh fairies. Such fairies are unlike most descriptions of these folk. They come in various sizes and shapes, some of them being not obviously humanoid at all. They can communicate a little, but aren't good with words, and don't like to talk to people. Most people can't see them.

The second matter is this: the book is a coming of age novel. It isn't much of a distortion to say that it's also about Morwenna's search for God. I quote:

[Humphrey] Carpenter says in the Inklings book that [C. S.] Lewis meant Aslan to be Jesus. I can sort of see it, but all the same it feels like a betrayal. It feels like allegory. No wonder Tolkien was cross. . . . Sometimes I'm so stupid -- but Aslan was always so much himself. I don't know what I think about Jesus, but I know what I think about Aslan. (page 129. Tolkien, though a great friend of Lewis for much of their lives, was not pleased with the Narnia books.)


Dear God, if you are there and care and can bless people, please bless Alison Carroll with your very best blessing. (page 212. Alison Carroll is her school librarian. Libraries are very important to Morwenna, and Ms. Carroll and another librarian went out of their way to do good things for Morwenna.)

There are several other indications that she is searching for meaning in life, and hoping to find it, somehow, in God. She doesn't exactly do so, though.

Thanks for reading. If you want to read an ambiguous book about magic, coming of age, and searching for God, Among Others is for you.


Tori said...

Found this from a google search for Among Others Christian book review--thanks for writing it!

Martin LaBar said...

You are welcome, Tori. I've done several such reviews, of various types of books.