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The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne JonesTwo stars

Buy from IndieBoundThe Tough Guide to Fantasyland takes its one joke — that it’s a spoof of the “Rough Guide” series of guidebooks, done over as a glossary of fantasy tropes — and cudgels it to death long after the initial chuckles have worn out. Sure, it does have its value. If you’re an aspiring writer, as Neil Gaiman points out in his blurb, this is an excellent one-stop shop for all of the clichés you want to avoid. I personally think it’s optimistic of Neil to assume inexperienced writers will avoid them so much as pick and choose their favorites to include, much in the same way newbie gamers use the “Oh, what a cool card!” approach to assembling Magic decks. 

The irony is that this book is actually something I’d praise a lot more if it were played straight, for exactly the aforementioned educational purpose. It might well save the lives of countless trees that would otherwise die to produce crates of tedious, hackneyed fantasy tomes. But I suppose we now have TVTropes for that. Jones, a writer whose experience in the fantasy publishing trenches makes her as qualified as anyone to produce a book like this, wants to go the spoof route. I think. There really isn’t anything here half as rib-tickling as any given paragraph in a Terry Pratchett novel. Case in point: here’s the whole entry for “Dark Lord”.

There is always one of these in the background of every Tour, attempting to ruin everything and take over the world. He will be so sinister that he will be seen by you only once or twice, probably near the end of the Tour. Generally he will attack you through MINIONS...of which he will have large numbers. When you do get to see him at last, you will not be surprised to find he is black* (see COLOR CODING) and shadowy and probably not wholly human. He will make you feel very cold and small. Actually, when it comes down to it, that is probably all he will do, having almost certainly exhausted his other resources earlier on. You should be able to defeat him, with a little help from your COMPANIONS, without too much effort. However, the Rules state at this stage you will be exhausted yourself and possibly wounded by MAGIC. So be careful.

So there you go. Cute. Chuckle chuckle, tee hee. While it’s actually an adequate summation of just how overdue for retirement the Dark Lord stock character has become, the comedy content isn’t exactly at rolling-in-the-aisles level, is it. It feels as forced as, well, any number of lousy fantasy plots, really. (Of course, if you’re rolling in the aisles right now, how I envy you for being so easy to amuse.) This is basically representative of the other entries in the book. None is really any funnier than this, and some just seem like Jones made them up in a burst of whimsy. There’s an entry for “Yogurt” for no good reason, which could easily be excused if it were as funny as Jones thought it was.

This little volume first came out in 1996 in England, and was nominated for a World Fantasy Award in the “Nonfiction” category, a fact that is funnier than anything in the whole book. A new version was somewhat revised for a fall 2006 U.S. re-release. Again, if you’re a wannabe writer, go ahead and get it. There are lessons here for your own storytelling, should you choose to heed them. But if you’re a reader looking for a laugh, anything by that Terry guy will produce a higher volume of hilarity and a real story to boot.

Oh, yeah. One more — erm — dubious thing about this re-release that troubles me. The US publisher was Penguin Firebird, for many years an estimable paperback line of young adult fantasy. This makes me concerned about the wisdom of such entries as “Sacrifice”, which includes the following:

The major and preferred form is of course the ritual killing of a human, preferably young, female, and beautiful.... The victim is roped down, ritually raped, then disembowelled.

This is YA material? Boy, times sure have changed. “Dark Lord Approved,” indeed! Nothing like trivializing sexual assault if you get a couple of laughs out of it, right?

*Yikes! The implied racism here is, I suspect, unintentional. But still stupidly careless.