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