This is not my usual choice of reading material; it is a fantasy, replete with magic, witches, and fairies, and a zillion allusions to science fiction books I haven’t read. (The author, Jo Walton, is an award-winning Welsh fantasy and science fiction writer). The story, told to us in the form of the diary of Morwenna Phelps, takes place between 1975 and 1980. I’m not sure why that time period is used, except there seem to have been a lot of great scifi books coming out at that time. It concerns a set of twins, Morganna (“Mor”), and Morwenna (“Mori”), who are daughters to a witch. When their mother’s magic gets out of control, fairies encourage the girls in some way to generate a car accident. Mor dies, and Mori is crippled, but the accident puts a temporary stop to their mother’s machinations.
Mori runs away to be with her estranged father Daniel and his weird half-sisters, and enters a private school. She frequents the library since she can’t participate in sports, and soon is happily a part of a book club and even gets a boyfriend. And she gets to know her father’s family. But she still has to deal with her mother somehow.
Along the way, she contemplates the morality of magic, how the world can accommodate both God and magic, what happens when you die, and how to put tragedies into perspective. Mori’s self-honesty makes her both likeable and exceptional as a character.
Discussion: Mori’s observations are thoroughly adolescent, amazingly self-aware, and quite sophisticated, all at once. At one point, for example, Mori is trying to reconcile the saying of prayers in school with how she feels now about religion:
“To tell the truth I’ve been pretty angry with God since Mor died: He doesn’t seem to do anything, or to help at all. But I suppose it’s all like magic, you can’t tell if it does anything, or why, not to mention mysterious ways. If I were omnipotent and omnibenevolent I wouldn’t be so damn ineffable.”
On the magic, fairies, and witches: in some ways these seemed only to be plot devices to showcase the way in which Mori was learning to cope with her fate and her world, and to come to terms with growing up. At no time did they appear to fill the fantastical role of imparting a new understanding of life to the protagonist through metaphor. Even when Mori is musing about metaphysical truths, she seems more curious about God than about the alternate world to which she is privy.
The real magic of this story, however, was not to be found in spells and otherworldly creatures, but in the healing power of books and libraries and bookstores, not to mention tea and cinnamon rolls on the side.
The central role of books in this story is wonderful, even if I didn’t get half the references to the titles Mori read. I loved, for instance, when Mori was in town one weekend with her friends Janine and Hugh from the book club:
“We went down the hill to the bookshop, sort of automatically, as if that’s the way all our feet wanted to turn. I said that to them.
‘Bibliotropic,’ Hugh said. ‘Like sunflowers are heliotropic, they naturally turn toward the sun. We naturally turn towards the bookshop.’”
Evaluation: I related a great deal to the idea that books can be extremely meaningful for you, and can excite you intellectually like nothing else. And people who can talk about books you love with you? Priceless! I’m a bit too jaded for all the rest of it, but I appreciate, as always, the push into new reading frontiers by the recommendations of fellow bloggers, and the critics have loved this book as well.
Published by Tor Books, 2011
Note: Kirkus Reviews named this book as one of the “10 Can’t-Miss Science Fiction and Fantasy Books of 2011
Hugo Award for Best Novel (2012)
Nebula Award for Best Novel (2011)
Locus Award Nominee for Best Fantasy Novel (2012)
World Fantasy Award Nominee for Best Novel (2012)
Mythopoeic Fantasy Award Nominee for Adult Literature (2012)
Kurd-Laßwitz-Preis for Foreign Novel (2014)
Romantic Times Reviewers’ Choice Award for Best Fantasy Novel (2011)
British Fantasy Award for Best Novel (2012)