The Bactra Review: Occasional and eclectic book reviews by Cosma Shalizi   106

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

by Diana Wynne Jones

London: Orion, 1996
``A science which hesitates to forget its founder is lost'': thus Alfred North Whitehead. Whether he was right about sciences is debatable, but it's certainly true of literary genres. The awful state of present-day fantasy largely consists of the fact that it is still, fifty years on, churning out trilogies which are debased versions of The Lord of the Rings --- ``elf operas,'' as they were recently named on Usenet. From time to time one of these will be a skillful piece of work (I'm partial to Tad Williams's Memory, Sorrow and Thorn myself), but for the most part the forests logged so that they might be printed have died in vain.

What Jones has done here is produce an open, flagrant and (if you know the genre) hilarious parody of books which often tremble on self-parody to start with. The Tough Guide consists of a set of instructions for use, follow by an alphabetical guide to the features of Fantasyland and a typical tour therein, complete with handy marginal symbols for thematic cross-references. (The symbols can be marvelous: s.v. Dark Lord, Eunuchs and Vestigial Empire.) Quite frankly I would have been happy to buy the book for the entries Boots, Ecology, Economy and Horses alone. Many of Jones's targets can be found in Tolkien (e.g. the Anglo-Saxon Cossacks), but many others cannot, and it would be amusing, in a masochistic way, to track down their sources. (I am particularly curious about where the Small Man comes from.) I laughed a great deal, and intend to keep this book on my shelves for easy reference --- indefinitely, alas.

People who don't read fantasy because they think it's all dreck should probably avoid this book, because it will only confirm their worst fears. (But they might enjoy seeing how many of its entries have instances or immediate analogues in their own favorite form of fiction; I've met the Small Man in novels by professors of creative writing about the travails of professors of creative writing, for instance.) People who read drecky fantasy ought to read it, but they probably won't. People who read fantasy but can't stand the dreck will find this hilarious. People who want to write fantasy should definitely read it, so that they know what not to do --- or exactly what to do, if they wish to turn to Evil.

302 pp., map, marginal icons, sporadic woodblock prints
Currently in print as a paperback, ISBN 057560106X, UK£4.99; in the USA, in print as a paperback, (New York: DAW, 1998), ISBN 0886778328, US$6.99. Out of print as a hardback, ISBN 1-56865-951-2.
10 November 1999