It has taken me several months to decide how I ultimately feel about this book. Immediately after finishing it, I liked it more than I did while reading it. I am immensely impressed with how Jo Walton is able to make the complete book more than the sum of its parts, and how, at least for me, the thesis of it isn’t apparent until the whole thing has been read.
The inner world of the main character, Morwenna, is compelling and magical. The way she views and experiences magic is exactly how any intelligent young girl with an imagination and an interest in fantasy/sci fi would explain magic to herself. Morwenna exists in a world inhabited by adults who do crazy, irrational, and frightening things. At any moment her crazy mother or absent father could swoop in and decide to take her away, or threaten her life, or things she can’t even anticipate, and so she lives in a constant state of insecurity with regards to the people who are supposed to provide her with security. She has no control over her life. To maintain her sanity, and to give herself a sense of security, she believes that she can affect the world through the use of magic and spells. It is this belief that ultimately saves her.
What I enjoyed most about this book is that it is never made explicitly clear whether or not the magic and fairies are real or in Morwenna’s imagination. This is especially true once I finished the book, because at any given time while reading it I was always waiting for that one definitive moment where I knew for sure. On one hand, it could all be true and work exactly as Morwenna described. On the other hand, it could all just be a coping mechanism in her imagination. When I originally read the book I assumed that Morwenna, the narrator, was a reliable witness. I look forward to rereading it knowing that she may not be, and see how it might change the experience.
I also appreciate the way the author handles magic. It is both classic and unique at the same time. I enjoy the way Morwenna thinks about magic all the time, about its rules and how it would or wouldn’t work, and how casting spells work. I also enjoyed the fairies. It felt very much like the sort of spellcrafting and fairy knowledge you would get from an ancient part of Europe, from an old woman who learned it from her granny, who learned it from HER granny, who was a hedge witch. It all tickled the part of me that likes to find dusty old books about herbs in the back corner of used book stores, that hoards rusty old keys, and that always looks through holes in stones to see if fairies are around. It’s magic that is worn around the edges, a little dirty, a little sinister and unpredictable. You know, “real” magic.
While I was reading, it wasn’t exactly a perfect experience for me. It’s “another” book involving magic and a boarding school, as we have seen with (of course) Harry Potter, and Lev Grossman’s The Magicians, to name a couple. It was well done and seemed appropriate, but I’m just saying it’s been done before. In a similar vein, it seems like all of the exciting stuff happens off screen. Morwenna alludes to events that sound very dramatic and exciting, but that happened in the past. Instead we experience a pretty typical series of events for a young person at a boarding school: boys, books, holidays, the difficulty of making friends, etc. Again, it was well done and seemed appropriate, but I hadn’t really realize I was getting myself into that type of “coming of age” story prior to starting it. Finally, Morwenna spends a lot of time talking about other science fiction books, about their themes and covers and characters. I really enjoyed this about the book because I am a huge sci fi fan, but occasionally I would have liked to have seen the mentioned cover, or had a more detailed explanation of why Morwenna believed something about a character. Often times she would state an opinion but say nothing more about why. I can understand that this is how a young person would journal, but I would have enjoyed the added detail.
Walton has a way of spinning a world around her words that is evocative of both the modern day and a storied and mythic past. The characters have depth and history and complexity. This is one of the few books I’ve read that I look forward to reading again.