Firebird, 2006, 234 pages, US$9.99 tpb, ISBN 0-14-240722-4
I didn’t know it, but I’ve been waiting for this book a good chunk of my life.
I should explain that I got tired of straight-up high fantasy early on: After the second or third dozen plot-coupon quest, it’s easy to give up on the genre and go read something else. But other people stuck with it, and sometime during the making of the Grant/Clute Encyclopedia of Fantasy, collaborator/proofreader Diana Wynne Jones came up with A Concept parallel to the Encyclopedia: A tourist guide to generic Fantasyland. Alphabetized, cross-referenced and sarcastic to a degree you wouldn’t believe.
A first edition of the Tough Guide to Fantasyland sprung up in 1996 and was promptly nominated for a Hugo Award. Now, a revised and updated edition has appeared on shelves just in time to protect unwary tourists from the newest horde of Tolkien wannabes. Having missed (but heard) about the first edition, I finally managed to snag a second edition copy and read it cover-to-cover.
There’s one word for this book and it’s brilliant.
The concept itself is sheer genius: if generic Fantasy is so, well, generic, wouldn’t it be possible to list all of the common clichés, obliquely blaming “The Management” for certain conventions and highlighting how certain things behave far differently in Fantasyland than in the Real World? And that’s exactly why the book is so clever: it’s a mixture of ironic shrugs and quiet sarcasm, a demonstration of silly clichés and a call for intervention at the same time. Why should people eat STEW when it’s so bloody hard to prepare even in the best of conditions? Who actually raises the ubiquitous HORSES that behave like motorcycles? Why should COLOR CODING be so reliable? Reading the entries in this guide is enough to make any fantasy reader nod in recognition as clichés are described, explained and dissected. (Don’t miss the ten possible kinds of SWORDS.)
It’s just beautiful. From ADEPT to ZOMBIES, Diana Wynne Jones has staked a fake genre on the ground and pounded a stake through its derivative heart.
No review of the book would be complete without a word about the fabulous design of the book. Someone obviously spent a lot of time thinking about how to present the information contained within, and the result is a small masterpiece of paperback design complete with side margin tabs, quick reference icons, pleasant typography and just enough graphic pizazz to make the entire book pop out. Alas, the acknowledgements are not forthright on who did the interior design of the book, though Tony Sahara is listed at the cover and map designer. (The book also has jokes in places you wouldn’t expect. Don’t miss The Map, or “Other Tough Guides”)
The only problem with The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is that it’s a book to read in small doses: The common thread unifying the whole book is sarcasm, after all, and the basic joke can turn repetitive. There’s also a Point to most of the entries, and it can be useful to pause and reflect upon that Point, especially if it’s made in an oblique fashion, or by inference with other entries. Expect to spend at least one early reading sessions flipping back and forth through the book to follow the best or most unusual leads. Can you say “perfect bathroom reading”? Yes, you can.
I’m always impressed by those who can combine critical insight with entertainment value, and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a near-perfect union of the two. It’s very funny, it’s very smart and it acts as an antidote to all of the bad fantasy clichés that have been allowed to contaminate the genre. Why can’t SFWA buy crates of this book and send it (free of charge, as a public service) to every budding fantasy writer? Think of it as a decontamination program, and a call for more stringent quality control. For writers, I expect this book to become an error-checking reference. For readers, a step up toward higher critical thought. For reviewers, something to hold on during the next awful trip to Fantasyland in the hands of a careless Management.