Jo Walton’s new book What Makes This Book So Great (U.S. / U.K.), is a collection of some of her best Tor.com posts honoring, analyzing, and reassessing science fiction and fantasy. The full collection, featuring over 130 essays, is out on January 21st and includes great opinion pieces like this, originally published in September of 2009.
Re-reading these books right now is a mistake. Before I picked up A Game of Thrones again, I had only a calm interest in Jon Snow’s true parentage, I’d forgotten who Jeyne Poole was, and best of all, I only mildly wanted A Dance With Dragons. I sagely nodded when I read that George R. R. Martin is not my bitch. I have every sympathy for this position. All the same, I know that by the time I get to the end of A Feast for Crows I’ll be desperate, desperate, desperate, so desperate for my fix that I’ll be barely able to control myself. I will be A Dance with Dragons–seeky, and is it out? Is it even finished? Like heck it is. And I know I’m not entitled to it but I waaaaaaaaaant it! If I were a sensible person, I’d have waited to re-read until it was ready and I could have had a new installment to go with the old. But now it’s too late.
So what is it about these books that makes me talk about them in terms of a two-year-old snatching at sweets in a supermarket?
Firstly, they have a very high “I-want-to-read-it” quotient. This “IWantToReadItosity” is hard to explain, is utterly subjective and is entirely separate from whether a book is actually good. Who can say why Robert Heinlein and Georgette Heyer and Zenna Henderson have it for me and Herman Hesse and Aldous Huxley don’t, despite the fact that Hesse and Huxley are major world writers? I’ll happily acknowledge that The Glass Bead Game is a better book than Job: A Comedy of Justice, but nevertheless, Job has that IWantToReadItosity, and if you left me in a room with both books and nothing else, it would be Job I’d start first.
Now, even within genre this is something that varies a lot between people. The Wheel of Time books don’t have it for me. I’ve read The Eye of the World and I didn’t care enough to pick up the others. Ditto Harry Potter, where I’ve read the first three. These are books that have IWantToReadItosity for millions of people, but not for me. The Song of Ice and Fire books do, though, they grab me by the throat. This isn’t to say they’re gripping in the conventional sense—though they are—because IWantToReadItosity isn’t necessarily to do with plot or characters or any of the ways we conventionally divide up literature. It’s got to do with whether and how much you want to read it. You know the question, “Would you rather read your book or go out with your friends?” Books have IWantToReadItosity if you’d rather read them. There are books I enjoy that I can still happily put down to do something else. A Game of Thrones is eight hundred pages long, and I’ve read it six times, but even so, every time I put the bookmark in, I put it in reluctantly.
These books are often described as epic fantasy, but they’re cleverer than that. Most epic fantasies are quests. This is a different kind of variation on a theme from Tolkien. In those terms, it’s as if when Sauron started to rise again in Middle-earth, Gondor was in the middle of the Wars of the Roses. They’re about human-scale dynastic squabbles on the edge of something wider and darker and inhumanly dangerous. The world is wonderful, with a convincing history leading to the present situation. It has good names (Winterfell, Greyjoy, Tyrion, Eddard), great characters who are very different from each other and are never cliches—and Martin isn’t afraid to kill them, nobody is safe in this world because of being the author’s darling. There are mysteries that you can trust will be resolved, everything fits together, everything feels real and solid and full of detail.
But the thing that really lifts them above the ordinary is the constant balance at the edge of the abyss, the army marching off south to win a kingdom when the real (supernatural) danger is north. There are human problems on a human scale, tragedy, betrayal, honour, injustice, and always the creeping reminder underneath of something . . . colder.
If you like history, and if you like fantasy, and if you like books where one page leads you on to the next and you can’t believe it’s that time already, you should definitely read these. Also, if you haven’t read them you’re lucky, because you have four eight hundred-page volumes to go before you’re reduced to a slavering hunk of waaaaaaaant.
Jo Walton won the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in 2002, and the World Fantasy Award for her novel Tooth and Claw in 2004. Her several other novels include the acclaimed “Small Change” alternate-history trilogy, comprising Farthing, Ha’penny, and Half a Crown. Her novel Among Others won the Hugo and Nebula Awards in 2012.