Book Review: The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones
I have adored Diana Wynne Jones ever since I read Howl’s Moving Castle over a decade ago. Her stories are so imaginative that she is one of my favorite fantasy authors. When I finally got my hands on The Tough Guide to Fantasyland I was a little surprised to find the book had been written like an encyclopedia. There is a small introduction and then the rest of the book is done alphabetically. Fortunately, the author has seemed to master some strange skill in writing a story without actually writing a story. Even though the book is an encyclopedia, is doesn’t feel like one. It runs very smoothly and doesn’t feel like a bunch of separate entries. The book displays a linear thought process that makes you feel like you are reading a book rather than a list of words with a witty description attached.
The Touch Guide to Fantasyland is 234 pages of Diana Wynne Jones making fun of The Lord of the Rings. You think I’m kidding? I am not. Let me get you an example.
LITTLE PEOPLE come in all sizes, from knee-high right up to the shoulder of the average human, and in a variety of breeds. The general Rule is that the smaller kinds are more like humans, while the larger ones get hairier and hairier, beginning with hairy feet and ending with hairy everything. All of them live in secret retired places, in either WOODS or MOUNTAINS, and come out only to join the Tour and help in SAVING THE WORLD. They are surprisingly cheerful, efficient, and brave, and usually win through where humans fail. If you have one or more on your Tour, count yourself lucky. Apart from anything else, Little People are allowed to make JOKES.
If that is not a tongue-in-cheek description of a hobbit then I’ll eat my keyboard. The whole book is filled with fantasy clichés and a lot of them are obviously from The Lord of the Rings. Others are just general jabs at fantasy clichés.
OUTER OCEAN. This is on the MAP, but it is out of bounds for the Tour. You can see that it is from the little drawings all over it. The Management does not know what, if anything, lies beyond this Ocean, and the Cartographer felt free to doodle in the space.
Here there be dragons, anyone? And, of course, my favorite entry:
GAY MAGE may be one of your Companions on the Tour. He will be very beautiful and will dress in gorgeous colors. He will have long hair which may be silver-blond. He will ache with sensitivity(OMT). He will not like to fight or to be angry with people. Despite all this, he will be surprisingly strong, competent, and determined, and he will be very good at MAGIC indeed. He will fall in love while on the Tour and suffer other disasters, but this will not impair his efficiency in the least. You will find him giving you a back rub and aromatherapy late in the Tour at some point when he ought to be dead. A valuable Companion.
I almost hurt myself laughing. I can think of a dozen characters from books that fit that description. I can think of three dozen more from internet posted stories from amateur authors. (Can’t get your books published or just don’t want to bother with the hassle? Create a website and post to the internet! It amazes me how many people do this. A lot of them are full of the same fantasy clichés that Diana Wynne Jones puts in this book.) The Touch Guide to Fantasyland would make an interesting resource for writers, either as an example of things to avoid or funny bits to include.
Note: You’d think this book would be fine for little kids, being about fantasy clichés, but you would be wrong. Rape is mentioned several times, mostly with the northern barbarians, and some unpleasant actions of the Evil Queen where “she will just order in a few more peasant youths to ravish and then dismember.” For example; the SACRIFICE entry states that “the victim is roped down, ritually raped, and then disemboweled.”
Kinky, but really strange coming from Diana Wynne Jones when compared to her other books. It’s really weird to be reading along in a funny, cute book about fantasy clichés and then have that thrown at your head. I almost got whiplash. It’s like the book has a split personality and the other personality likes to mug unsuspecting readers in dark alleyways. The copy I got from my library is actually rated for young adults. I’d probably keep this book away from the little kiddies.