Among Others: extraordinary, magic story of science fiction as a toolkit for taking apart the world

I've been wandering around for a week reading Jo Walton's Among Others, trying to think of how I'd describe it once I finished, and now I've just finished and I'm still stumped.

So let me start with some adjectives. "Indescribable" for a starter. But more like "indescribably wonderful." And also "compassionate" and "sweet" and "magical." "Highly recommended" comes to mind.

Now, let me tell you what this is all about. Among Others is the diary of Morwenna Phelps, a Welsh teenager whom we really meet just after her twin sister, Morganna, has died in an unspecified but terrible way. It's 1979, and Morwenna and her sister see fairies and do magic, and have done all their life. Their mother is a terrible and evil witch, and the death of Morganna is somehow related to a spell that they did together to protect themselves -- and maybe the world -- from her.

And here's the important part: this is not a soppy book. Morwenna talks to fairies and does a kind of Earth-magic, but she isn't angst-ridden, she isn't treacly, she isn't mystical and spooky. She is, instead, a playground anthropologist, an outcast child who has Jane Goodall's keen eye for schoolyard social order.

Morwenna has been crippled by the accident that took Morganna, and she has left her mother, left Wales, and gone to Shropshire to live with her father, Daniel, who ran out on the family when she was a baby. Her father may be a a child-abandoning bastard, but at least he isn't her mother. But her father's posh half-sisters are determined that Morwenna should go away to an exclusive girl's boarding school, and so off she goes, keeping touch with her father only through letter-writing and visits home at the holidays.

Morwenna's greatest companions now are her books, science fiction and fantasy. It's one of the strange charmed moments when many cross-currents are whipping through the field, and great and bad books from The Hitchhiker's Guide the Galaxy to Thomas Covenant are seeing print. Through sympathetic librarians and interlibrary loan -- and magic -- Morwenna discovers a million new literary worlds and strange and challenging ideas.

This is one of the places where Walton does something that made my head spin. For though Morwenna's life has much that makes her unhappy, from her family to her pariah status to her gamey leg, these books are not an escape for her. She dives into them, certainly, and goes away from the world, but she find in them a whole cognitive and philosophical toolkit for unpicking the world, making sense of its inexplicable moving parts, from people to institutions. This isn't escapism, it's discovery.

This is such a remarkable trick, for Walton is retracing the intellectual progress of a clever, strange child with so much rigor and evocative language that you feel, really feel the mind-opening power of fantastic literature and the communities that sprang up around it.

And the magic is tremendous, because Walton's heroine manages to make magic seem like it does in dreams, a nearly formless thing without rules that vanishes if you look at it too hard, a thing that is impossible to tell apart from coincidence, except you know it isn't.

I'd rank this with such great stories of nerd awakening as Pinkwater's Alan Mendelsohn, the Boy From Mars, but less comic, more serious. It is an inspiration and a lifeline to anyone who has ever felt in the world, but not of the world. It is a beautiful book.

Among Others


  1. “For though Morwenna’s life has much that makes her unhappy, from her family to her pariah status to her gamey leg, these books are not an escape for her. She dives into them, certainly, and goes away from the world, but she find in them a whole cognitive and philosophical toolkit for unpicking the world, making sense of its inexplicable moving parts, from people to institutions. This isn’t escapism, it’s discovery. ”

    Switch the she to a he and that paragraph sounds like it’s describing ‘Of Human Bondage’ as well.

  2. Given that I like Cory’s books, and I’ve been an SF fan for 40 years, it has taken me time and money to discover that a Cory book recommendation means for me, DON’T buy the book he recommends, so I guess in that, he succeeds as a reviewer?

    1. This is the biggest reason I visit here. For the reviews of books, and I loved that I discovered Sandman Slim here from Cory. Will pick this up as well !

  3. Wow, this seems to tick all the right boxes for me. Plus, Jo Walton’s post on are always a treat. Ordering it right now.

  4. “… great and bad books from The Hitchhiker’s Guide [to] the Galaxy to Thomas Covenant …”

    ouch. re: thomas covenant, i recall really liking the first 3 books.

    Idle question: Cory, is that your opinion, or an opinion expressed in Among Others?

    1. It’s okay, cisco — I disliked The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. I do tend to love Cory’s book picks, however!

  5. If only there were a store where I could buy this book.
    Sadly, I don’t have DRM-pad, nor feel like waiting for Amazon to mail it to me – I just want to go buy it and hold it and read it. Sigh. I guess I’ll wait until it gets into the distribution system of my local bookstores.

  6. @Tamooj: According to the local B&Ns here in Baltimore have it in stock. If your local bookstore doesn’t have it … ask them to get it, perhaps they didn’t order it … or perhaps they sold out!

  7. I loved Jo Walton’s Farthing trilogy, and I admit to appreciating it when an author throws us librarians a bone. This is definitely going on my list.

  8. Cory, thanks for reviewing these awesome books! You and my high-school teacher sister turned me on to teen fiction, which is WAY WAY BETTER than it used to be.

    Also–after gaining trust in your outstanding reviews just read your own Little Brother, which was quite good. Thanks man!

  9. “She dives into them, certainly, and goes away from the world, but she find in them a whole cognitive and philosophical toolkit for unpicking the world, making sense of its inexplicable moving parts, from people to institutions.”

    I’ve felt that way my whole life. I think this just made it onto my “to read” list.

  10. Bought this yesterday morning upon reading the post and I’m about 30 pages in.

    God DAMN it, Cory, for your crazy awesome book recommendations. First Bitter Seeds, now this.

    But this one is worse, because it sets you on a hunt for all the other books she mentions, half of which you know you’ll read standing up in Lear’s in Cardiff…

  11. Without offence, I never thought I’d take (or get for that matter) a book suggestion from BoingBoing. However, after reading Cory’s review I went ahead and ordered the book.

    I read it in one sitting, not because of its simplicity, but because it was mesmerizing in a way I only thought Carl Sagan was able to mesmerize.

    I’ll definitely be reading it again.

    I have to wonder, Cory, how you wandered around with it for a week, as I couldn’t put it down :-)

    Thanks for the review, it resulted in a great new book.

    I can think of only four times that I opened a book an didn’t put it down until I was finished: Thomas King’s “Green Grass, Running Water”; Stanislaw Lem’s “Solaris; Ursula LeGuin’s “The Dispossessed”; and, Elizabeth Moon’s “The Deed of Paksenarrion”–which I read back-to-back twice. It is one of the only times I have ever found a distinctly female, yet believable, heroine in a more or less male oriented genre (well, since the woman in “The Yellow Wallpaper,” but that’s another story ;-)

  12. I hope this is not too OT, but does anyone know if JW’s “Half a Crown” is due to be published in Britain in paperback?

  13. Just finished this wonderful book. The one flaw of the book was the climatic scene at the end. Her understanding of what to do came out of nowhere. I was also a bit bothered by a character who could only relate to others through their love of similar books. I know people like that and find that them to be remarkably limited.

  14. I agree with wcullen: how did you walk around with this for a week? I got my hands on it on Sunday afternoon and finished it Monday night.

    I agree with mikeinthemiddle: the ending was a bit out of nowhere.

    All in all, I loved the book, and have half a mind to start a list of all the books mentioned, and go out and read the ones I haven’t read.

    I must admit that when Mori opens her present from Deirdre and it was HHGTTG, I had to put the book down to cry. I must also admit that I don’t know why. Lingering mourning for Adams, most likely. Dunno if that will ever go way =/

    Thank you for the recommendation Cory!

  15. I can’t buy it :(

    Amazon tells me: “This title is not available for customers from your location in: Asia & Pacific”


  16. I’d read many but not all of the books in the book, so I put together Mor’s reading list. I couldn’t find all the author names, but this is a start. Herewith:

    Title (Author)
    Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)
    Lathe Of Heaven (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    Aeneid (Virgil)
    Jane Of Lantern Hill (L.M. Montgomery)
    Lord Of The Rings (J.R.R. Tolkien)
    Wind’s Twelve Quarters, Volume 2 (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    Last Starship From Earth (John Boyd)
    When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit (Judith Kerr)
    Dragonquest (Anne McCaffrey)
    Creatures Of Light And Darkness (Roger Zelazny)
    Cat’s Cradle (Kurt Vonnegut)
    God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater (Kurt Vonnegut)
    Breakfast Of Champions (Kurt Vonnegut)
    Welcome To The Monkey House (Kurt Vonnegut)
    Sirens Of Titan (Kurt Vonnegut)
    Pilgrimage (Zenna Henderson)
    A Canticle For Leibowitz (Walter M. Miller)
    Dying Inside (Robert Silverberg)
    Have Spacesuit, Will Travel (Robert A. Heinlein)
    The Chrysalids (John Wyndham)
    Empire Star (Samuel R. Delany)
    Ensign Flandry (Poul Anderson)
    The Bull From The Sea (Mary Renault)
    The Charioteer (Mary Renault)
    Chronicles Of Narnia (C.S. Lewis)
    Dragonflight (Anne McCaffrey)
    City Of Illusions (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    Flight Of The Horse (Larry Niven)
    Ringworld (Larry Niven)
    Out Of The Silent Planet (C.S. Lewis)
    Warm Worlds And Otherwise (James Tiptree)
    Nine Princes In Amber (Roger Zelazny)
    The Guns Of Avalon (Roger Zelazny)
    Triton (Samuel R. Delany)
    I Capture The Castle (Dodie Smith)
    Starlight Barking (Dodie Smith)
    Communist Manifesto (Karl Marx)
    Purposes Of Love)
    Last Of The Wine)
    The Magus (Fowles)
    Left Hand Of The Electron (Isaac Asimov)
    End Of Eternity (Isaac Asimov)
    Symposium (Plato)
    World Of Ptaavs (Larry Niven)
    Time Enough For Love (Robert A. Heinlein)
    Dangerous Visions (Harlan Ellison)
    Best Of Galaxy Volume IV)
    Spell Sword (Marion Zimmer Bradley)
    Babel 17 (Samuel R. Delany)
    Glory Road (Robert A. Heinlein)
    Callahan’s Crosstime Saloon (Spider Robinson)
    Waldo And Magic, Inc. (Robert A. Heinlein)
    Broken Sword (Poul Anderson)
    Telempath (Spider Robinson)
    Up The Line (Robert Silverberg)
    Beyond The Tomorrow Mountains (Sylvia Engdahl)
    Heritage Of The Star (Sylvia Engdahl)
    Waste Land (TS Eliot)
    Four Quartets (TS Eliot)
    Crow (Ted Hughes)
    Dragonsinger (Anne McCaffrey)
    Lord Foul’s Bane (Stephen Donaldson)
    Wizard Of Earthsea (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    Silmarillion (J.R.R. Tolkien)
    Crystal Cave (Mary Stewart)
    Dragonsong (Anne McCaffrey)
    Shockwave Rider (John Brunner)
    Stand On Zanzibar (John Brunner)
    Imperial Earth (Arthur C. Clarke)
    Childhood’s End (Arthur C. Clarke)
    2001 (Arthur C. Clarke)
    Born With The Dead (Robert Silverberg)
    Red Shift (Alan Garner)
    Dispossessed (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    City (Clifford Simak)
    Dune (Frank Herbert)
    Republic (Plato)
    Daughter Of Time (Josephine Tey)
    An Old Captivity (Nevil Shute)
    Mere Christianity (C.S. Lewis)
    Eye Of The Heron (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    Word For World Is Forest (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    Left Hand Of Darkness (Ursula K. Le Guin)
    Kissing Gate)
    Stepsons Of Terra (Robert Silverberg)
    Voyage To Alpha Centauri (Robert Silverberg)
    Guardians Of Time (Poul Anderson)
    World Inside (Robert Silverberg)
    Make Room! Make Room! (Harry Harrison)
    Dark Is Rising (Susan Cooper)
    Mote In God’s Eye (Larry Niven)
    White Dragon (Anne McCaffrey)
    Citizen Of The Galaxy (Robert A. Heinlein)
    Grey King)
    Silver On The Tree)
    Selected Poems (W.H. Auden)
    Guide To Science (Isaac Asimov)
    History Of The English-Speaking Peoples (Winston Churchill)
    Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy (Douglas Adams)
    Jane Eyre (Charlotte Brontë)
    Einstein Intersection (Samuel R. Delany)
    Charisma (Michael Coney)
    Hello Summer, Goodbye (Michael Coney)
    Sign Of The Unicorn (Roger Zelazny)
    Tempest (William Shakespeare)
    Romeo And Juliet (William Shakespeare)
    Midsummer Night’s Dream (William Shakespeare)
    Dream Master (Roger Zelazny)
    Mission Of Gravity (Hal Clement)
    Vicinity Cluster (Piers Anthony)
    Chaining The Lady (Piers Anthony)
    Spell For Chameleon (Piers Anthony)
    Return To Night (Mary Renault)
    Brat Farrar (Josephine Tey)
    Isle Of The Dead)
    I, Claudius (Robert Graves)
    Phaedrus (Plato)
    Laws (Plato)
    Greeks (H.D.F. Kitto)
    Telepathist (John Brunner)
    Winter’s Tale (William Shakespeare)
    Richard II (William Shakespeare)
    Space Hostages)
    Girl Who Was Plugged In (James Tiptree)
    Love Is The Plan, The Plan Is Death (James Tiptree)
    Houston, Houston (James Tiptree)
    Doorways In The Sand (Roger Zelazny)
    Roadmarks (Roger Zelazny)
    Number Of The Beast (Robert A. Heinlein)
    Starship Troopers (Robert A. Heinlein)
    Moon Is A Harsh Mistress (Robert A. Heinlein)
    This Immortal (Roger Zelazny)
    Sword Of Shannara (Terry Brooks)
    Persian Boy (Mary Renault)
    Pavane (Keith Roberts)
    Times Without Number (John Brunner)
    Man In The High Castle (Philip K. Dick)
    Bring The Jubilee (Ward Moore)
    Dream Of Wessex (Christopher Priest)
    Lord Kalvan Of Otherwhen (H. Beam Piper)
    Too Many Magicians (Randall Garrett)
    Touch Of Strange (Theodore Sturgeon)
    Inverted World (Christopher Priest)
    Gate Of Ivrel (C.J. Cherryh)
    Adventures Of Tom Bombadil (J.R.R. Tolkien)

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