Over a six month period from late 1979 to early 1980, Morwenna Philips writes about her life in a diary. She ran away from an insane mother to live with her father, fleeing her home in Wales for the unusual culture clash of an upper-class English household and boarding school. She barely knows the father who abandoned her when she and her recently deceased twin sister were babies. The two share a passion for science fiction and fantasy, and little else.
Oh, Morwenna, Mor to her friends (oddly enough, also her late sister’s nickname), believes in magic and fairies. She claims her mother tried to cast an evil spell and it was stopping her at the behest of the fairies that got her sister killed and permanently damaged her one leg.
Is that the truth? Jo Walton’s Hugo award winning novel Among Others follows Mor during this period. Spoilers and a review after the cut.
Here’s the thing: much of what happens in this book is done so ambiguously that there’s a good case to make that Mor’s fairy sightings are often a product of her imagination. She states early that you can’t see fairies unless you already believe in them, and even changing your mind about them makes them invisible. Much of what she does can be passed off as coincidence or childish fantasy.
I don’t think Mor is an inherently unreliable narrator. There are events that occur that are not explainable by “she imagined the whole thing,” such as a new walking stick she finds after seeing a fairy alone in the woods. Other later events do also tend to make things more obviously true as she depicts them, but at the same time, we only have her word for it. That she doesn’t even seem inclined to share what happens with most people, especially with her twin sister dead, means that there isn’t any way to possibly confirm what’s going on in many instances.
In fact, the fireworks at the end, when Mor does…something…is done with only a single human witness, her obviously deranged mother. When Mor does magic, much of it looks so much like coincidence that not even Mor herself is certain she’s really doing magic.
With that in mind, much of the pleasure comes from watching the girl mature. While a lot of what she does and assumes can be chalked up to immaturity, that changes over the course of the book as she learns to navigate the world. For example, she has no interest in sex…until she meets a really cute guy at a science fiction book club. She figures out how to basically appease her father’s sisters (the ones who control the money actually). She meets the paternal grandfather she never knew she had.
If nothing else, the book is almost a who’s who of late 70s science fiction and fantasy writers. An interested reader could probably pick up a few dozen book recommendations just from Mor’s own reading list.
So, while there’s a level of plausible deniability to the entire book, let’s say this one gets eight fairies out of ten for being mostly just charming.