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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Diana Wynne Jones
DAW Books, 302 pages

Art: Walter Velez
The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
Diana Wynne Jones
Diana Wynne Jones was born in London, England. At an early age, she began writing stories for herself and her sisters. She received her Bachelor of Arts at St. Annes' College in Oxford and went on to to write full-time in 1965. She has won many awards and honours including the Carnegie Commendation for Dogsbody, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award twice, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award.

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Review: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Rich Horton

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland was published in the United Kingdom in 1996, and North American readers have been hearing ever since about this clever sendup of all that is tired and stale in the hordes of FFTs (Fat Fantasy Trilogies) published these days. Well, it's been released in the US at last!

The conceit behind the book is that Fantasyland is a tour stop (though most will want to make at least three trips!) and The Tough Guide to Fantasyland is a sort of Fodor's for this tour. It is complete, of course, with map and an alphabetical glossary of the terms used throughout the tour.

So, what to say about it? First off, Jones is as consistently funny a writer as we have, and she does not disappoint here. The book is clever and witty throughout. As ever with Jones' writing, the humour is dry:

"There is something about the chemistry of the land that makes smells. It is probably a fallout effect of MAGIC, but see also SOCKS and TROUSERS."
Little touches like this abound, along with running jokes and some sharp, pointed comments about the lack of thought which lead to the clichés she is sending up. I would say only that, lacking a plot, this book isn't well suited for reading all the way through at one go. Taken in a gulp, it gets a bit repetitive -- but it's a great bathroom book.

The book isn't just humour, however. There is a serious point behind it, to wit: lots of Fantasy these days is awfully full of clichés. The backgrounds start to look the same, and the plots as well. The writers often fail to think through the rationale for their geographies or social structures, to say nothing of the economic underpinnings of these societies! In addition, elementary details such as how long a horse can run, or how people in certain climates dress, are missed. Jones skewers cliché after hackneyed cliché: the MISSING HEIR, the giant SPIDERS, the COLOUR CODING for evil and good. She also catches out pacing problems: I loved her entry on TIME:

"TIME taken on the tour is often vague... You may be slogging happily along and find yourself surprised that you have had months of travel. Or you may think you have been a year on the way and find it has been only days. The Management likes to keep you guessing."
One problem, though, is the sense that she is often shooting fish in a barrel. Yes, she's hammering away at the bottom 90%, but we already knew these books were bad! Two hundred-plus pages of reinforcement does get a bit old. As well, not all of the clichés quite struck home with me. For instance, I really don't recall any GAY MAGES at all. On the other hand, I don't read all that many FFTs.

One further cavil: some of the clichés are based in reality. Jones has a lot of fun with the ubiquity of STEW as a Fantasyland meal, and she has a point. However, in the past when meat was hard to come by and often tough, and refrigeration nonexistent, stew really was common and a good way to prepare less than tender meat and vegetables. She also wonders why impractical CLOAKS are so common? Well, because cloaks are easy to make, and they don't waste fabric. (For both of these points, I am indebted to a long discussion on the Usenet newsgroup rec.arts.sf.composition.) Her main point stands, though: the writers who use these clichés seem to be using them because they read about them in another book, not because they understand the reasoning behind it all.

All said, this is a very enjoyable book to read -- in small snippets. And any writer venturing on creating his or her own tour through Fantasyland would do well to read it, and at least think twice about his or her use of any clichés skewered herein!

Copyright © 1999 Rich Horton

Rich Horton is an eclectic reader in and out of the SF and fantasy genres. He's been reading SF since before the Golden Age (that is, since before he was 13). Born in Naperville, IL, he lives and works (as a Software Engineer for the proverbial Major Aerospace Company) in the St. Louis area and is a regular contributor to Tangent.

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