The Tough Guide to Fantasyland: A Hilarious, Necessary Voyage

While at Sirens last year, I sat in a panel devoted to discussing Resources for Writing Fantasy. Even though I’ve been writing since I learned how, I haven’t been writing fantasy for long. I dabbled in the genre a bit when I was young, but hadn’t thrown myself into it until about two years ago.

In the mean time I had read my fair share of fantasy books, mostly epics, but none of the major canonical works in the genre. I’d also watched quite a lot of fantasy derived movies and television shows. The latter of which can outline so many ‘what not to-do’s’.

After reading my first urban fantasy book, Kelley Armstrong’s Bitten, I knew that’s what I wanted to write. The more I read in the genre, the more attached to it I became. But I had a little problem. It would take me decades to read all the really significant urban fantasy works out there. And, the more novels I read in the sub-genre, the more aware I became of the cut-and-paste tropes constantly recycled. Some worked, many annoyed me because the whole series grew predictable.

Then I discovered I had a personal problem with the genre.

The people who work and write in the fantasy world are hard-core. Fantasy is what they live and breathe. While I adore the genre, I read outside it. Widely. And I no longer watch many fantasy shows because books are so much better. It’s no doubt nerves talking, but sometimes I feel like a pretender because I don’t know all the significant works and big names in fantasy. I easily get lost in fandom conversations.

Still, I was and am determined to write my own fantasy stories. A researcher at heart, I really wanted the list of titles the women of Sirens could direct me towards.

Thus, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland entered my realm. I am forever grateful.

The Tough Guide to FantasylandI literally just finished it this weekend and I need to gush about it. First though, as I’ve said under my Reading Recommendations tab, this post and my blurb under the tab are not intended as reviews. I want to talk about this book because it has helped me so much and I’m ridiculously excited about it.

The Tough Guide is based on the premise that every single fantasy story anyone anywhere has read all take place in the same locale: Fantasyland. Fantasyland is run by the Management, who love to subject characters and readers to the same tropes over and over.

It’s a no holds barred barrel of laughs that opens your eyes wide, like all good comedy does. Genres are built on tropes, that’s just the way it is. But sometimes those tropes get so overused they turn into cultural clichés –many of which are exhausted. Jones’s Tough Guide not only outlines 98% of the tropes, she illuminates 100% of the tired clichés writers need to stay clear of.

I didn’t expect a reference book to entertain me like this one did. I laughed throughout the journey and had many of my favourite fantasy epics flash before my eyes, mostly The Lord of the Rings trilogy. I also came away utterly inspired. Every time I sat down and read it I thought about the different aspects of my own epic fantasy work and wanted to write down notes like a madman.

My absolute favourite entry involves the infamous BATH; it’s a long entry so I’ll share the best part:

Management Rules state that no one ever steals your clothes/valuables or AMBUSHES you while you are immersed in a Bath. Any lurker will wait until you have finished, take care, however. Baths are the occasion for SEX with one or more of your FELLOW TRAVELLERS. No matter how irritating you have found her/him up to then, after or during the Bath you will find her/him irresistible. It is probably something in the WATER. (17)

Pollen is the only hint I will give about the Horses entry. Source for this image.

Pollen is the only hint I will give about the Horses entry. Source for this image.

The HORSES of Fantasyland also have one of the best entries, as do most of the ANIMALS and types of FOOD. However, I’ll have to make you read the book to find out!

Finally, with the breakdowns of each type of character found in Fantasyland, it’s apparent the kinds of roles women have been forced into across the history of the genre. The sexist tropes are changing, thankfully, but they still run rampant. For instance, the long entry on VIRGINS shows outright that male virgins are seemingly non-existent while young women shouldn’t be anything but.

The only thing I’m walking away dissatisfied with is the lack of focus on aspects of fantasy subgenres, like urban fantasy. The Tough Guide is all about high fantasy that focuses on vast kingdoms, long lost royalty, and great quests.

Still, The Tough Guide is beyond useful and I’m glad I read it. Have you read it? If so, what did you think? If not, has my excitement sent you into its arms? What types of reference books have you found instrumental?