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Among Others    by Jo Walton order for
Among Others
by Jo Walton
Order:  USA  Can
Tor, 2011 (2011)
Hardcover, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

The more I read of Jo Walton's works - from her initial historical fantasies (The King's Name, The King's Peace and The Prize in the Game) to her exceptional Small Change series, and her unusually draconic Tooth and Claw - the more impressed I am by her versatility. Now she brings fans something very different yet again - a (mostly) gentle, magical coming of age in a (mainly) boarding school setting.

What any bookworm will appreciate (and indeed wallow in) throughout Among Others is its young heroine's ongoing commentary on what she reads. For example, she says of The Lord of the Rings, 'I know no other book that is so much like going on a journey.' Personally, I was delighted to encounter another reader whose tastes ranged from Mary Renault to Robert Heinlein, Roger Zelazny and C. J. Cherryh - though I wondered why young Mori stopped at Renault and never went on to Rafael Sabatini and Cecelia Holland.

The story opens after a terrible magical confrontation in Wales, in which Morwenna Phelps and her twin sister saved the world from their mad mother (reminiscent of darker renditions of Morgan le Fay). In the process, her twin died and Mori was left crippled. When she fled her mother's home, social services sent Mori to live with the father who deserted them when she was a baby. Under the thumb of his three older sisters (and dependent on them financially), Daniel Markova sends the fifteen-year-old to Arlinghurst, an exclusive boarding school.

Mori and her twin grew up in the Welsh valleys, surrounded by a large extended family. They played in the ruins of factories, whose 'smell was beyond description.' They encountered fairies, and worked small magics on their behalf. But Walton's fairies are very different from the usual fantasy creations - 'Fairies tend to be very beautiful or absolutely hideous' and are generally uncommunicative, at most uttering a few words (such as 'Doing is doing') whose meaning is hard to decipher.

An outsider at Arlinghurst, Mori befriends another reject and finds solace in the school and town libraries - in the latter she discovers that 'Interlibrary loans are a wonder of the worlds and a glory of civilization.' Of time spent with her classmates, she muses, 'Who could help wanting to Impress a dragon in preference? Who wouldn't want to be Paul Atreides?' Attacked long distance by her mother, she makes a magic for protection and to find a karass (of like-minded people).

This leads to her joining the town library's weekly SF book club - and to meeting Wim, with the look of 'a young Alexander the Great' - but also to many questions on the ethics of using magic for yourself. Mori wonders if this is how her mother started on her path to become a 'dark queen', and doesn't want to be like her. But she survives a final confrontation with this witch of a woman who has long terrified her, and finally comes into her own.

Though it develops at a leisurely pace, Among Others is engrossing for anyone who has grown up with a passion for reading, especially for reading science fiction and fantasy. It's part memoir, part paean to books and libraries, and part treatise on the use and abuse of power, 'when anything you do has power and consequences and affects other people'. Highly recommended!

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