Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland (Firebird, 2006 [orig. Vista, 1996])
Diana Wynne Jones, The Dark Lord of Derkholm (Harper Trophy, 1998)

Diana Wynne Jones and satire, at least in my experience, seem to go together like tea and crumpets. Particularly when turning her penetrating gaze on fantasy (an area in which she herself is rapidly gaining an honored place on my "exceptionally capable practitioners" list), Jones shows an ability to zero in on cliché with the precision of a surgeon.

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland takes Jones' satire up an order of magnitude: she manages not only to skewer every triteness (and every hole in universe-building) in every fantasy novel you've ever read, but also takes on travel agents, guided tours, guidebooks, tourists, and the corporate mindset.

From the send-up of the ubiquitous and generally useless maps (see "What to do first"), which mercilessly lampoons every map in every fantasy novel you've ever picked up, through her note about Official Management Terms ("OMTs," which are "thoughtfully included in italics where necessary"), to the identification symbols used throughout (including icons for good, evil, magic, and cliché), the introductory section is a beautiful set-up for what comes after.

That is the "Toughpick," an alphabetical listing of elements on your tour. Each section is headed by a quote from Ka'a Orto'o's Gnomic Utterances which probably does not have anything to do with that section. This handy guide lists just about anything you are likely to encounter, and cross-references are printed in capitals for easy identification. (As a case in point, under "SMELLS," see also "TROUSERS" and "SOCKS.")

For example, we soon learn that "ALLEYS are the most frequent type of ROAD in a CITY or TOWN. They are always narrow and dark and squishy, and they frequently dead-end. You will escape along them when pursued and also be AMBUSHED there. See also REFUSE and SQUALOR."

This is a revised and updated reissue of the original book published in 1996, which also gave rise to Dark Lord of Derkholm, one of the funniest fantasy novels I've ever read.

The world has been subject to tours organized by the dictatorial Mr. Chesney for the past forty years, and the University Emergency Committee has met to try to find a way to stop them -- everyone is pretty much fed up. High Chancellor Querida has a plan, based on instructions from the Oracles, that involves choosing the wizard Derk as this year's Dark Lord. His wife Mara will be the Evil Enchantress. As it turns out, although Querida's plan involves screwing things up as much as possible, Derk turns out to be very efficient, although he is not very happy about the whole thing. He would much rather create some new animals to join his flying pigs, the Friendly Cows, and carnivorous sheep. However, it appears they're stuck -- Mr. Chesney's contract covers everything. It's Derk's son Brand, appointed as a tour-guide wizard, who, when he is captured and sold as a gladiator-slave, gets the goods on Mr. Chesney.

There is a lot of humor in Dark Lord and a host of sympathetic characters. Derk and Mara's family includes not only their human children, Shona and Blade, but the griffins as well (Derk included some of his and Mara's cells when he created them): think about the ramifications of having seven children of varying abilities, some with wings, most of them teenagers. The story really takes on some of the characteristics of the better situation comedies from American TV, although I don't suppose we can call this a traditional family.

Dark Lord of Derkholm has its share of chuckles, but it is ultimately a charming, light-hearted and heart-warming adventure story. I do not, however, recommend reading The Tough Guide to Fantasyland over your morning coffee (unless your sinuses need clearing out), nor anywhere but in private, except for those of you who are completely oblivious to the stares and whispers of total strangers. I howled my way through The Tough Guide. Part of it was Jones' adroit use of cross-references and the apparent non sequitur, which it turns out is not always so "non." The really big part of it was the constant flash of recognition ("Omigod! That's straight out of [insert title of potboiler fantasy epic here]!" I should note that even deserved classics are fodder for Jones' wit, however obliquely.) It approaches the realm of the best satiric parodies (and anyone familiar with something like Anna Russell's rendering of Wagner's Ring will know what I mean): in this case, the more fantasy you've read, the funnier the Tough Guide will be.

[Robert M. Tilendis]

The official Diana Wynne Jones fan site is here.