‘…I imagine he knows magic, if he’s reading books. The book itself doesn’t matter. It’s that he found another world in it.’ Rene Denfeld – The Enchanted
Ok, so this quote is written about a violent psychopath, but if you’re reading this review, and even thinking about reading this book, you’ll understand what Rene Denfeld means. I certainly imagine Jo Walton fully comprehends.
I first encountered Walton’s work reading Among Others, a book unlike anything I might usually consume. It beguiled from start to finish and was my stand out book of 2012. The girl in Among Others, Mor, is a prodigious reader, as is Jo herself. Somewhere in ‘What makes…?’ Walton explains how she can read up to and beyond a book a day. I thought I read quite fast, but this is reading as a superpower.
As a result of her rapid consumption, rereading books has become a necessity for Jo and this book is a chronicle of her adventures reading novels she has repeatedly enjoyed through the years. The books are almost exclusively science fiction/fantasy.
On the face of it this is a curious book to publish, especially in hardback. A cover price of £25 does seem a little steep, especially when you consider the essays were first available (and remain so) on Tor.com. With many publishers (well one major fantasy one anyway) trimming their hardback lists, Corsair’s decision seems bold bordering on reckless. That’s not to say the book is not a fine beast, because it is. It looks great and Walton’s relaxed but incisive writing style make it perfect for dipping in and out of.
The book could be read in more or less any order, though is presented chronologically. I read them in order over a number of weeks. Reading a couple of entries when I had a spare ten minutes. Most of them are specific to individual books whilst some (of the better ones) focus on reading style and habits.
Whilst I don’t think this is a perfect book, I really enjoyed reading it. It introduced me to some books I’d never heard of that sound wonderful, waxed lyrical about some books I love, and perhaps best of all, reminded me of some books I bought many years ago but haven’t got around to reading. Walton has a magical ability to make every book she’s enjoyed sound like the best book in the world. My to-be-read pile has swelled considerably since reading ‘What Makes this Book so Great ‘.
The book is a curious beast. I can’t decide whether it’s best to have read the books Walton talks about or not. On the one hand, if you’ve read the book, you’ll have a shared reading experience and a point of reference. Alternatively, this could be seen as a handbook of undiscovered gems, ready to set readers on fantastic journeys of discovery.
Many of the authors appear, are ones Mor loved so much in Among Others, and give further insight into the qualities of some of the genre’s seminal texts. There are a couple of authors who feature a little too heavily. Lois McMaster Bujold and Steve Brust are clearly Walton favourites. Whilst I can see their merits as authors, there are at least a dozen posts focusing on each of the pair’s books, which if you were somebody who is unlikely to read a book by either author, possibly wouldn’t switch you on to them. Walton is quite good about spoilers (there aren’t many and they are well telegraphed), but even so it’s hard to wax lyrical about a 10+ book cycle without losing some readers along the way. I skim read many of the Brust/Bujold entries. It feels like there are so many books available to start would be futile, though I know Walton would completely disagree with this sentiment.
Unlike Among Others, I think you have to have a predilection for fantastic fiction if you are going to enjoy What Makes this Book so Great. This is more about the nuts and bolts of the novels and is essentially a conversation between one sci-fi lover and another. Walton’s writing is effortless to read, and inspiring time and again. A valuable addition to any SFF reader’s burgeoning bookshelves.
Many thanks to Grace at Corsair for sending me a copy of this book.