Tuesday, May 31, 2011

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland - Diana Wynne Jones

My apologies for the interruption in reviews and other new content lately. As I mentioned in my previous post, my attention was diverted by a situation at work. I won't bore you with the details of Dutch labour law but renewing my contract turned out to be a bit a drama. Despite the best efforts of my manager, as of tomorrow, I am officially unemployed. This sucks but life goes on. And so does Random Comments.

And here we are (slightly delayed), reviewed work number two-hundred. When I approached a hundred reviewed works I asked the readers of Random Comments which book I should review and ended up with Roadside Picnic by Arkady and Boris Strugatsky. I was pleasantly surprised by this novel so I derided to try it again this time around. I ended up with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, a non-fiction book by Dianna Wynne Jones. She recently passed away after a battle with lung cancer at the age of seventy-six. I haven't read any of her other works and I didn't know what to expect of this book other than that is was a parody on fantasy clichés. And lets face it, there's quite a few of those around to poke fun at.

Jones does this by taking the reader on a Tour through Fantasyland. In a series of concise descriptions, ordered alphabetically and properly cross-referenced, she takes us past the building blocks of life in your average fantasy world, pointing out the major attractions, peculiar customs of its inhabitants and unique critters that can be found along the way. There's tonnes of absolutely vital information you need to know and countless warnings that will keep you safe throughout the journey. It also helps you build a useful vocabulary to describe common phenomena in Fantasyland by assigning OMTs (Official Management Terms) to them.

Under C for instance, there is an exceedingly useful description of capitals:
CAPITAL LETTERS at the beginning of words are used liberally by the Management according to Rules that transcend human understanding and may under no circumstances be questioned (see TABOO).
But there is also more practical information. Under H for instance, we lean that:
HEATING is open fire or nothing, except in MONASTARIES, TEMPLES, and the PALACES of sick KINGS, where a charcoal brazier is allowed to the abbot, HIGH PRIEST, or King. Sometimes the insides of an ANCIENT ENGINEERING PROJECT will be kept inexplicably warm by some preternatural agent beyond the ken of Man (OMT), indicating the ancients knew a thing or two about central heating.
We pass by dragons, non-human races, raids by bandits, wars, famine, magical mayhem and all manner of discomfort than can be counted upon during a tour through Fantasyland. In fact, it is something of a miracle anyone would want to go there in the first place.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is entertaining, at times hilariously funny and for any fantasy reader hugely recognizable. Still, I don't think we need 230 pages to drive this message home. More than once my attention drifted. Despite the number of pages I wouldn't recommend trying to read it in one go. I guess one of the aspects that made me feel only mildly interested in this book is the somewhat dated content. I've read the revised version, published in 2006, and it clearly doesn't do justice to the diversification that the genre has gone through in the last fifteen years or so. Yes, there are plenty of books and series that conform to a lot of what Jones describes but I found it just as easy to come up with examples of works that don't include particular entries. In fact, you could be forgive for thinking Jones based herself on The Lord of the Rings and the Wheel of Time for most of the content.

Another example that made me feel the text was a bit dated can be found under V:
VAMPIRES are increasingly rare on the Tour. They have been attracted over to the Horror Tour by offers of better pay. Where they appear, you will find up-to-date Vampires wear expensive sunglasses and wish to drain you of energy rather than blood.
I guessed they moved on to the Urban Fantasy tour now, fickle creatures that they are.

The book did get me thinking on why Fantasy more than other genres seems to suffer from the image of being repetitive and unoriginal pulp. Some people still seem to suffer from the delusion that all fantasy is a substandard retelling of The Lord of the Rings, a preconception that is disturbingly hard to dispel. Jones doesn't really answer that question in this book of course, but she does emphasize how silly this idea is by making the reader keenly aware of stereotypes floating around in the genre. I guess the book might be interesting if you write fantasy yourself. It could be good fun to see how many Tour elements you pack into your story. Do keep in mind that it is not a list of things to avoid at all cost in your story. These tropes are popular for a reason.

I guess I have to say I am mildly disappointed by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Yes, it is very funny at time, but offers the reader little more than brief entertainment. I guess it is good to look at a preferred genre in an other light once in a while. Jones does a good job of pointing out all the stereotypes and clichés that cling to epic fantasy. Nevertheless, I don't consider it a must read for fantasy fans.

Book Details
Title: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Publisher: Firebird
Pages: 234
Year: 2006
Language: English
Format: Paperback
ISBN: 0-14-240722-4
First published: 1996, 2006


  1. Congratulations on 200 reviews! And condolences on your new employment status.

    I've heard about this book from other people but have never really looked into it that much. It sounds like something that might have been even more entertaining as a linear, safari-style guide rather than a cross-referenced, alphabetically-organized encyclopedia.

    Speaking to someone who does write fantasy, I think it's a common problem for fantasy writers to rely too heavily on the established tropes when they find problems or holes in their story (or worse, don't actually have a story at all). I'm guilty of doing this. We get stuck in a mode where we think, "OK, there's a wizard. And a sword. The sword is magic."

    Often I find that the best fantasy comes from people who clearly have a story to tell and then construct a world suitable for that story. (And this is probably true of literature in general.) Sometimes that world will resemble the stereotypes to a high degree; sometimes it will be completely different.

  2. You have a point there, stereotypes generally only bother me is the plot is too thin or predictable. I still think that line of reasoning is very much genre fiction though. Wouldn't the literary crowd just say that the world is there and there's no need to construct it?

  3. I've read somewhere that Diana Wynne Jones was reading a ton of what would today just be called high fantasy while she was doing research for her entries in The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, and started noticing the same tropes and cliches popping up over and over. She started making a list and it eventually turned into a book. I don't know that she ever intended it as more than just some light entertainment (although I do recommend it to people who want to write high fantasy). It would be fun if someone would do a companion volume about urban fantasy.

    I hope your job situation improves soon.