I ran across a reference to The Tough Guide in a recent essay about fantasy literature and women writers by Tansy Rayner Roberts. She called it “the one book every fantasy writer should read.” While I’m not presently hoping to be a fantasy writer, I paid attention to this strong recommendation and borrowed a copy of the book through interlibrary loan at work.
The Tough Guide reminds me a lot of The Meaning of Liff by Douglas Adams and John Lloyd in that it’s written dictionary-style and it’s funny. Unlike Liff, The Tough Guide is more than just a joke book. It explains the most common tropes and traditions of the fantasy genre while masquerading as a travel guide to the world found in your typical faux medieval European fantasy story.
The entries are written with a light touch of humor and with the deep knowledge of the subject matter that only Diana Wynne Jones could have brought to them. She covers everything from the map at the front of big fat fantasy novels to the questionable parts of Fantasyland, like the unrealistic diet (of stew and waybread and no vegetables?), unbalanced economies (every caravan seems to be attacked yet trade continues unhampered?), and the stereotypical characters (Gay Mage, Female Mercinary, Serious Soldier, Talented Girl, etc.) you can expect to find as you progress through your Tour.
I found this book slow going because I kept having to pause at the end of entries to let my brain work through the names of the many MANY works of fantasy that they called to mind. I agree with Tansy: if you’re going to write fantasy, this book is an essential guide to the conventions–and the overused tropes–of second world fantasy stories. If you’re a fantasy reader, you’ll find The Tough Guide to Fantasyland to be an entertaining, unusually creative work about the genre.