Review: What Makes This Book So Great, by Jo Walton

Russ Allbery eagle at
Mon Oct 31 22:03:03 PDT 2022

What Makes This Book So Great
by Jo Walton

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

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 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
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 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

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

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 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

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, highly

Rating: 8 out of 10

Reviewed: 2022-10-31


Russ Allbery (eagle at             <>

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