The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

by Diana Wynne Jones

Cover image

Publisher: DAW
Copyright: 1996
Printing: December 1998
ISBN: 0-88677-832-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 302

Buy at Powell's Books

Still mentioned regularly by the author blogs and book review sites that I read, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a skewering of the overused tropes and cliches of fantasy novels (particularly the ubiquitous fantasy trilogy) written as a travel guide. The basic conceit is that the reader is travelling to Fantasyland to take a Tour, one which normally comes in three separate travel brochures. This guide tries to explain the local customs, give the tourist an idea of what to expect, and reassure them that being captured by slavers is not as bad as it sounds at the time.

I'll note my biggest dislike first. Except for a very short prefix (and a map that's worth a few smiles, even if it doesn't feature suspiciously square mountain ranges), the whole book is organized alphabetically. This is a disappointing choice.

Except for reference works where the user (not reader) already knows what they're looking up, alphabetical organization is nearly the worst possible choice. It's a failure of imagination, providing no effective structure and guaranteeing random and sometimes jarring transitions when read cover to cover. I have the feeling that it may be part of the spoof, but this sort of book is not a reference work even if it's pretending to be one, and reading it like a reference work isn't as fun. While there are a very small handful of expected jokes one can get out of this structure (I admit I chuckled at "Eternal Quest: See Quest, Eternal"), I would have enjoyed this book much more with a thematic structure. Chapters on clothing, quest structure, places, inhabitants, and so forth would have flowed more smoothly and would have eliminated the need for repeated cross-references and alternate listings that were essentially wasted words (and would have provided editing opportunities to trim out some of the duplicated material).

That significant complaint aside, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a lot of fun. From the bandit spy who is a mandatory employee in any trade caravan to being captured and sold as a galley slave as the way to get to the dragons and/or the Other Continent (for male tourists; female tourists have other routes), I was frequently snickering or laughing out-loud at the entries. Each is short and succinct, not wearing out the joke, and the whole guide fits together in a satisfying way. For a parody encyclopedia, Jones manages to do a surprising amount of consistent world-building, creating an amusing mental image of this imaginary set of Tours. This is a great book to pick up and read a page or two between other things.

Perhaps the best idea in this guide are the OMTs, or Official Management Terms, which are the management-approved ways of referring to certain features of the world. Ambushes happen in rocky defiles, the ever-present stew that everyone lives on is thick and savory, and squalor is invariably noisome. There are even better ones sprinkled throughout the book, and it was amusing (and somewhat depressing) how often the OMT listed for a particular item was exactly what my mind had been anticipating automatically.

If you've spent any time reading traditional episodic fantasy series (Robert Jordan, Mercedes Lackey, David Eddings, any of the role-playing tie-in novels), you'll recognize quite a bit here. Jones does err in the side of being funny rather than accurate, so many of the generalizations stated baldly here don't actually apply universally, but that is a completely forgivable sin. And enough hits accurately that I bet you'll come away noticing more of those ubiquitous OMTs and wondering just why it is that no one wears socks.

This isn't the sort of book that one reads straight through (particularly given the alphabetic organization), but it's great bathroom reading. I also recommend it as a book to stick into your pack for quick reading in idle moments. I think it could have been better, and in some ways the execution isn't quite up to the idea, but still mildly recommended for any fantasy reader who enjoys poking some fun at their favorite books.

Rating: 7 out of 10

Reviewed: 2005-09-25

Last modified and spun 2014-12-21