The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: Revised and Updated Edition by Diana Wynne Jones, 234 pp, RL 5

The inimitable, irreplaceable Diana Wynne Jones was inspired to create The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel late in 1994 when, as she says, "I was recovering from surgery, a situation I found myself in rather often during that decade." Knowing that she was bored and impatient, her friend John Clute, who, along with John Grant, are the authors of the The Encyclopedia of Fantasy, first published in book form in 1997 and now available on line, suggested that she help work through the projected entries for the encyclopedia. Working with Chris Bell, she helped to decide which entries were necessary or made sense and provide examples. When they came to the proposed entry, "Nunnery," they both shouted in unison, "Nunneries are for sacking! There is usually one survivor." Diana went on to say, "You know, most of these books are so much the same that I could write the guidebook for the country they happen in." And a book was born. And then updated in 2006.
Although encyclopedic in nature, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel is laid out like a guide book (I almost typed "rough" instead of "tough" so many times while writing this review). A very funny, "How to Use This Book" chapter at the start of the guide instructs the reader to "Find the MAP," (words in ALL CAPS indicate entries in the Tough Guide) "Examine the map," "Find your STARTING POINT." From there, the reader must "set about finding an INN, Tour COMPANIONS, an meal of STEW, a CHAMBER for the night, and then the necessary TAVERN BRAWL." In a way, Jones is encouraging the reader to pursue this book as a "choose your own adventure" venture, if you remember those books. And, while it is possible to read The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel it's almost more fun to peruse it, opening to any page and reading an entry, especially since the Management tells the reader that the map is useless. Like any good travel guide, there are "identification elements," or icons next to the entries for quick reference. There are the traditional, like icons for money, building, person, lodging and landmark, as well as less common, like fish, clan, magic and evil, which gets a "thumbs down" image. Each chapter, which corresponds with a letter, begins with a quote from the "Gnomic Utterances," citing the author and era, and they tend to be more humorous than helpful.

The "O" chapter begins with this quote, "Onions much attracted the Sage Algeron, who used to declare that onions were like the eyes of demons. Some say it was a demon who took off his left big toe." The first entry of the chapter is OMT, or, Official Management Term, which has the icon for CLICHE next to it. OMTs appear throughout the guide in italics and indicate frequently used words in the genre of fantasy that "perform the same function as music in films." Words like "thick" and "savory" get the OMT italic treatment when paired with STEW, which is often described as being thick and savory in fantasy novels. While you have to have a a fair knowledge of the fantasy genre - or fantasy novels set in a medieval realm to be in on some of the humor in The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel, you don't have to be able to get the joke or ever know that Jones is being funny to enjoy this book. In fact, the perfect book to read as a companion while perusing The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel is Vivian Vande Velde's fantastic Heir Apparent. Set in the not too distant future, Giannine finds herself stuck in a virtual reality game called Heir Apparent in which she, as the bastard heir to the throne of the newly deceased king, must navigate a medieval kingdom, making the right allies and thwarting the right enemies in order to take her place on the throne. When a mob of protesters furious at the violence of video games charge the gaming center, things get dicey and Giannine finds she only has a limited time to play, fail, die, and level up in the world of the game before her brain is fried in the real world.

If I haven't done enough to entice you yet, here are a bits and pieces of few more entries:

ANIMALS: See ENEMY SPIES, FOOD and TRANSPORT. Apart from creatures expressly designed for one of these three purposes (and this includes HARES and RABBITS), there appear to be almost no animals in Fantasyland. Any other animal you meet will be the result either of a WIZARD's BREEDING PROGRAMME or of SHAPESHIFTING. You may, on the other hand, hear things, such as roaring, trampling, and frequently the hooting of owls, but these are strongly suspected to be sound effects only, laid on by the Mangement when it feels the need for a little local color.     See also DOMESTIC ANIMALS and ECOLOGY

KNITTING: It is possible that Knitting has not yet been invented in Fantasyland - at least so far as mortals are concerned (see CRONE). The complete absence of SOCKS and sweaters suggests that the inhabitants have concentrated instead on EMBROIDERY and weaving.

MISSING HEIRS occur with great frequency. At any given time, half the COUNTRIES in Fantasyland will have mislaid their Crown PRINCESS/PRINCE, but the Rule is that only one Missing Heir can join your Tour at a time. Yours will join as a COMPANION selected from among the CHILD, the TALENTED GIRL, or the TEENAGE BOY, and as part of your QUEST you will have to get them back to the Kingdom where they belong. This can be a right nuisance. All Missing Heirs shine with innocence (some of them quite dazzlingly), and most have very little brain, which means that they will not pick up any hints as to their true status. You have to do this for them. In addition . . . (this entry goes on twice as long and only gets funnier!)

As I read through The Tough Guide to Fantasyland : The Essential Guide to Fantasy Travel and was reminded of several books I have read and loved, I realized that, even though these aspects of the realm of fantasy are so common that they can be cataloged and made fun of, they are also what makes the genre so wonderful and, yes, to some, comfortable. What fascinates me is the new wave of fantasy being written for kids in a post-Harry Potter world. It has been 15 years since the boy who lived made his debut on American shores and already it seems that there are commonalities for this new wave of fantasy. As Marjorie Ingall succinctly noted at the start of her New York Times review of two new works of middle grade fantasy:

Want to write a middle-grade fantasy adventure series? It’s easy! First, conjure up a plucky, prickly team of three — children who have to learn to trust one another and work together. Make the stakes really high; saving the world is always good. Use lots of wisecracking humor. Ensure the parents are absent (dead, missing, away — you’ll figure it out). Invoke classic themes and figures from folklore and mythology, but don’t bother becoming slavishly wedded to them. Be sure to include an intellectually or physically butt-kicking girl. 

Do I have a problem with these rules? I do not. Girls should play a role in saving the universe. Teamwork is important. Trust is a gift in our cynical, selfish world. But turning these rules into a book that’s both fun and well written is quite a trick. A writer has to create characters we’ll come to love, build a vivid world, ratchet up suspense, keep up a propulsive and pulpy momentum, use language deliciously, and spark enough excitement and imagination to get us to Book 2. 

As much as I love the conventions of traditional fantasy, I have to confess that I am beginning to grow weary of the sameness of these new common themes. Always three kids, always dead parents and always saving the world. And as much as I like the "intellectually or physically butt-kicking girl," I think it's time for publishers and authors to expand on these  characteristics and broaden this brave new world of fantasy.

Source: Traded through PaperbackSwap

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