Yesterday, I reviewed "What Makes This Book So Great", a collection of Jo Walton's brilliant book-reviews from Tor.com. Today, Tor editor Patrick Nielsen Hayden has posted his essay on the book, entitled "What Makes Jo Walton So Great." It's a tremendous read, and a great frame for the book, which is flat-out great.
Her brief essays aren't works of analytical criticism; they're far more personal than that. Jo isn't trying to establish a canon, or boost an agenda, or put forth a theory about what SF and fantasy should or shouldn't be. What she does, over and over, is invite a conversation, and set forth some insightful starting points.
Mind you, What Makes This Book So Great does include thoughtful, well-considered assessments of some of our most widely-acknowledged peaks of literary achievement, inside the genre and outside of it. Novels by Samuel R. Delany and Ursula K. Le Guin; the short fiction of James Tiptree, Jr.; and also non-genre novels like Salman Rushdie's Midnight's Children, John Fowles's The Magus, and George Eliot's Middlemarch. It's got essays such as "The Suck Fairy" that have already contributed useful language to the world (Jo is good at that), and passionate advocacy for ambitious novels that haven't been read by nearly enough people, like Candace Jane Dorsey's Black Wine and Susan Palwick's Shelter.
All of which is to the good. But one of my favorite things about What Makes This Book So Great is a pair of long, multi-essay considerations of a couple of important multi-volume works—fifteen posts about Lois McMaster Bujold's Miles Vorkosigan books, and eighteen about Steven Brust's Vlad Taltos/Dragaeran Empire novels. Both Bujold's and Brust's series have been growing since the 1980s, and both are works, now literally epic in scope, that (1) use superficially conventional genre forms to (2) tell stories of subtlety and moral complexity, to the (3) engaged delight of innumerable intelligent readers, (4) unfortunately not including the vast majority of the field's critics and reviewers, (5) most of whom seem to have decided long ago that these aren't the kind of books Serious People talk about.
What Makes This Book So Great [Amazon]
What Makes Jo Walton So Great [Patrick Nielsen Hayden/Tor.com]