What Makes This Book So Great

by Jo Walton

Cover image

Publisher: Tor
Copyright: January 2014
ISBN: 0-7653-3193-4
Format: Hardcover
Pages: 447

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Jo Walton, in addition to being an excellent science fiction and fantasy writer, is a prodigious reader and frequent participant in on-line SFF book discussion going back to the Usenet days. This book is a collection of short essays previously published on Tor.com between July 2008 and February 2011. The unifying theme is that Walton regularly re-reads her favorite books, and each essay (apart from some general essays on related topics) is about why this specific book is one that she re-reads, and (as the title says) what makes it so great.

Searching for the title of one of the essays turns it up on Tor.com still, so this is one of those collections that you don't have to buy since you can read its contents on-line for free. That said, it looks like these essays were from before Tor.com started classifying posts into series, so it's going to be challenging to track them down in the huge number of other articles Walton has written for the site. (That said, you can't go far wrong by reading any of her essays at random.)

I read these essays as they were originally published, so this was also a re-read for me, but it had been a while. I'm happy to report that they were just as much fun the second time.

In the introduction and in the final essay of this collection, Walton draws a distinction between what she's doing, criticism, and reviewing. As someone else who writes about books (in a far more amateur fashion), I liked this distinction.

The way I'd characterize it is that criticism is primarily about the work: taking it apart to see what makes it tick, looking for symbolism and hidden meanings, and comparing and contrasting other works that are tackling similar themes. I've often finished a work of criticism and still had no idea if the author enjoyed reading the work being criticized or not, since that isn't the point.

Reviewing is assistance to consumers and focuses more on the reader: would you enjoy this book? Is it enjoyable to read? Does it say something new? What genre and style is it in, so that you can match that to your tastes?

Talking about books is neither of those things, although it's a bit closer to reviewing. But the emphasis is on one's personal enjoyment instead of attempting to review a product for others. When I talk about books with friends, I talk primarily about what bits I liked, what bits I didn't like, where the emotional beats were for me, and what interesting things the book did that surprised me or caught my attention. One can find a review in there, and sometimes even criticism, but the focus and the formality is different. (And, to be honest, my reviews are more on the "talking about the book" side than fully proper reviews.)

These essays are indeed talking about books. They're all re-reads; in some cases the first re-read, but more frequently the latest of many re-reads. There are lots of spoilers, which makes for bad reviews (the target audience of a review hasn't read the book yet) but good fodder for conversations about books. (The spoilers are mostly marked, but if you're particularly averse to spoilers, you'll need to read carefully.) Most of the essays are about a single book, but there are a few on more general topics, such as Walton's bafflement that anyone would skim a novel.

Since these are re-reads, and the essays collected here are more than a decade old, the focus is on older books. Some of them are famous: Vinge's A Fire Upon the Deep and A Deepness in the Sky, early Le Guin, Samuel Delaney's SF novels, Salmon Rushdie's Midnight's Children. Some of them are more obscure. C.J. Cherryh, for example, is a writer who never seems to get much on-line attention, but who is one of Walton's favorites.

Most of the essays stand alone or come in small clusters about a writer, often sprinkled through the book instead of clumped together. (The book publishes the essays in the same order they originally appeared on Tor.com.) The two largest groups of essays are re-readings of every book in Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos universe (including Brokedown Palace and the Paarfi books) up to Jhegaala, and every book in Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan series up to Diplomatic Immunity. This is fitting: those are two of the great series of science fiction, but don't seem to be written about nearly as much as I would expect.

There are over 130 essays in a 447 page book, so there's a lot of material here and none of them outlive their welcome. Walton has a comfortable, approachable style that bubbles with delight and appreciation for books. I think it's impossible to read this collection without wanting to read more, and without adding several more books to the ever-teetering to-read pile.

This is perhaps not the best source of reading recommendations if you dislike spoilers, although it can be used for that if you read carefully. But if you love listening to conversations about the genre and talking about how books bounce off each other, and particularly if you have read most of these books already or don't mind spoilers, this collection is a delight. If you're the type of SFF reader who likes reading the reviews in Locus or is already reading Tor.com, highly recommended.

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-10-31

Last modified and spun 2022-11-01