Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Review of The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference

Any book claiming to be a “complete reference” guide is setting itself a mighty high bar to reach. The Writer’s Complete Fantasy Reference doesn’t come anywhere close to offering a complete view of such a vast subject as fantasy fiction, but, for readers willing to accept its limitations, it still presents a handy reference manual and more than few sparks of inspiration.

But, first, its faults: The subject matter is aimed almost entirely at writers of high fantasy. Urban, contemporary, and steampunk authors (among others) won’t find much of use here. Even just a cursory glance through the book shows that it focuses on the history, weaponry, and clothing of the Middle Ages. (And, in fact, the book could almost have been written for authors of medieval historical fiction as much as for authors of fantasy.)

The entries, each written by a different author, come together in an uneven whole. The book opens with a few chapters on cultures (including what I felt was the most eye-opening chapter of the book, which focused on little-known and -used cultures, which authors could use to step away from the typical fantasy stereotypes of medieval western Europe), then dives into two heavyweight chapters on magic and follows up with relatively brief (and, in my opinion, as someone who’s studied medieval history, incomplete) chapters on commerce, costumes, warfare, and castles. Chapters on fantasy races—both classic and lesser known—were interesting, but didn’t offer much new information or much inspiration for creating original creatures.

Despite its limitations, however, I did feel the book offered a decent overview of fantasy standards and stereotypes, which should prove useful to beginning authors. Even better, its glossaries of fantasy and medieval terms are a handy addition to the resource shelf, if you plan to write anything that will feature castles and swords. This is certainly isn’t a must-read for fantasy authors, but if you can pick up a copy cheap somewhere, you may find it has its uses.
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  1. In spite of its shortcomings, it sounds like a good starting point for those of us not familiar with fantasy writing. Thanks for the review!

  2. I wasn't sorry I read it, although I was sorry it wasn't a little more comprehensive.

  3. Great review! I don't write high fantasy etc. but I still might check this out in the library. It's always good to learn new things/facts!

  4. There's a lot of interesting info in this one. Worth skimming, although it shouldn't be taken as an end-all on the subject of fantasy.

  5. Hi - could you recommend any sources, especially for dark age europe? I'm working my way through a load of research at the moment, but mainly having to settle for early medieval.

    Not sure I see the point of this book. The history stuff is in history books, and the fantasy stuff is in role playing rule books.

    Jonathan - Sheffield

  6. Except for the fact that the history and fantasy info are melded into one reference guide, this book really doesn't offer many advantages. Some authors may find it a useful primer, but not much more.

    As for Dark Ages history, what years, specifically, are you interested in? Most of my own research has focused on the turn of the 13th century.

  7. Not to worry then. I'm looking more at 9th and 10th century. Not much about. I'm learning that it might be easier to read books about specific subjects that discuss the history of the practice, rather than general history books on the era.

    Thanks - Jonathan

  8. That's what I've found as well. General history can only cover so much, and the little, insignificant details are what we, as fiction authors, really need to make a story pop.