What Makes This Book So Great cover

Review: “What Makes This Book So Great” by Jo Walton

Neither thumbs up nor thumbs down for What Makes This Book So Great by Jo Walton. Nonfiction.

I enjoyed reading this book, but, perhaps peculiarly, I hesitate to recommend it. For one thing, all of its contents are available for free online. For another, one large chunk of it pertains only to the Miles Vorkosigan books of Lois McMaster Bujold and another chunk to the Vlad Taltos series of Steven Brust—and both sections are packed with spoilers, making them something you’ll probably want to avoid unless you’ve either already read those series or have no intention of doing so. And, to be honest, I found myself, shall we say—unable to relate to the narrator? It is a rare day, apparently, when Walton doesn’t read an entire book. If she’s “laid up,” she can read up to six books a day. Six! Books! A! Day! All of the things I want to say here are deeply uncharitable. I’ll just say, how about you read the best essay, “SF Reading Protocols”, and then go on to the Miles Vorkosigan series itself, or some other pleasure of your choice?

We’ve all probably had the experience of reading a great SF novel and lending it to a friend—a literate friend who adores A. S. Byatt and E. M. Forster. Sometimes our friend will turn their nose up at the cover, and we’ll say no, really, this is good, you’ll like it. Sometimes our friend does like it, but often we’ll find out friend returning the book with a puzzled grimace, having tried to read it but “just not been able to get into it.” That friend has approached science fiction without the necessary toolkit and has bounced off. It’s not that they’re stupid. It’s not that they can’t read sentences. It’s just that part of the fun of science fiction happens in your head, and their head isn’t having fun, it’s finding it hard work to keep up.


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