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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones

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Imagine that all fantasy novels—the ones featuring dragons, knights, wizards, and magic—are set in the same place. That place is called Fantasyland. The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is your travel guide, a handbook to everything you might find: Evil, the Dark Lord, Stew, Boots (but not Socks), and what passes for Economics and Ecology. Both a hilarious send-up of the cliches of the genre and an indispensable guide for writers, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland has been nearly impossible to find for years. Now this cult classic is back, and readers can experience Diana Wynne Jones at her very best: incisive, funny, and wildly imaginative. This is the definitive edition of The Tough Guide, featuring a new map, an entirely new design, and additional material written for it by Diana Wynne Jones.
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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is what, I presume, people had in the days before TVTropes; humorous but pointed descriptions of the cliches and tropes of fantasy, told by an author of the genre.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is organised in, essentially, two sections; a short introduction, and a long reference section. The introduction is an amusing equivalent of the prologue and the proper way to approach a fantasy novel of the sort under discussion – the sort authors like Eddings have written over and over again for year; it discusses the map, the preparations for the Tour, and so on. Its humour is rather sarcastic but with a certain warmth to it, an amusement at the tropes even while showing weariness with them.

That warmth becomes less, and the weariness and frustration greater, in the alphabetised reference section. Taking various items and describing them – such as the QUEST, SWORDs, KINGs, GOOD and EVIL, and COLOUR CODING – Jones describes the hackneyed, cliched uses of these tropes perfectly; The Tough Guide to Fantasyland takes down the various things readers have become used to in a certain kind of fantasy novel. Hence the entry on swords is one of the longest in the book, discussing all the different kinds of swords and the various problems they cause – and concluding with swords being something one has to have but really should try to avoid; or the entry on COLOUR CODING, which sends up the (Western-influenced) system by which characters are outfitted and, indeed, physically appear in general.

Certain sections have more ire than others, however; ANIMALS, ECOLOGY and ECONOMY all demonstrate the failures of the imagination that post-Tolkeinian fantasies suffer from. Jones has some very biting comments about the disregard for logic and worldbuilding in these sections, and the way in which they are inconsistent within themselves; The Tough Guide isn’t a guide to worldbuilding but it certainly points one of the ways of doing it wrong by going in too abstract a direction, as it pokes fun at the fantasy novels that, for instance, insist on stew and meat without having any animals, or rich trading economies without any apparent trading partners.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a classic that ought to be given to every reader and writer of fantasy, to sort the Brookses from the Bears, the Eddingses from the Hurleys; Jones really did give us a gift with this little volume. You’ll never read The Belgariad in the same way again.


1 Comment

  1. “…a classic that ought to be given to every reader and writer of fantasy

    Truth!

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