Varhola, Michael J., et al. 1999. The Writer's Complete Fantasy Reference. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest.

Reviewed 16 February 1999

Utter Rubbish (cover) This was a freebie. And it's too expensive at that price.

The initial indication of its worthlessness is that the "official" author is "Writer's Digest Books," not the contributors. Before getting into the book's substantive flaws, though, let's look at the rest of the packaging. First, it's a hardcover book with a dustjacket on high-bulk paper (to hide its thinness); the dustjacket illustration and design say "YA fantasy novel," not "serious writer's tool." Second, the front and back matter include an "introduction" by Terry Brooks that has virtually nothing to do with the actual content, and a useless 14-page index to what is essentially a dictionary. Third—and perhaps most irritating—the book clearly was not copyedited or even grammar-checked. There are many, many obvious errors in the short narrative passages.

The second indication of its worthlessness is the organization and presentation of the material. Although slightly dressed up, this book is nothing more than a glossary of medieval terms. A couple of chapters try to extend beyond Western Europe, but they don't do so in any real depth, and (unfortunately) maintain a Western European perspective on non-Western European cultures. So, at best, someone who reads this book will be able to throw around some terms that he or she hadn't learned previously. This is rather like giving a Japanese dictionary to a typical American high school student and expecting the student to learn Japanese in a few days.

That is the real problem with unconvincing fantasy. Many authors do quite well at using terms in a reasonable fashion, but they completely miss the context. For example, Sherrilyn Kenyon's wretched chapter on "Commerce, Trade[,] and Law in Contemporary Fantasy" gives a list of Renaissance occupations, calls them "medieval," and then tries to divide them into "lower class," "middle class," and "upper class." Even if these divisions were meaningful in an agrarian society, there's no attempt to describe what the "classes" mean, or how they relate to government, or nobility, or social mobility, or . . . The word "commerce" implies "trade over a broad area"—a subject never raised. The material on law is merely a vague list of punishments, with no explanation of mechanisms, or distinctions for ecclesiatical courts, or explanation of high and low justice, or even a list of common offenses! (I will not delve into the serious factual errors in the definitions; suffice it to say that the author clearly did not look at any primary sources, and clearly restricted her efforts to England.)

The most damaging aspect of the book, though, is that it completely fails to discuss many critical, oft-neglected areas that also provide fertile ground for storytelling. For example:

  • Religion is mentioned only in passing, and seems to concern only urban aspects of cultures.
  • Money, media of exchange, letters of credit, coinage, etc.
  • Disease.
  • Population patterns and growth, including urbanization.
  • International relations (which were considerably different from "modern" diplomacy).
  • Ethnic hatred, especially for conquered peoples.
  • Technology, including metallurgy and mining, nonmilitary construction, roadbuilding, bridgebuilding, seafaring, domestic technology, agricultural implements, and so on.
  • Macroeconomics.
  • Microeconomics.
  • Diet, nutrition, and agriculture.
  • Climate.
  • Literacy (or the lack thereof).
  • The relationship among alchemy, science, and magic.
I'll stop there. The list could get much longer. I'm not suggesting that a book must cover each of these areas in detail to be useful. I am suggesting that failure to acknowledge them at all is a fatal flaw.

Finally, I have to note that the two chapters that attempt to cover military affairs will do nothing but enable more authors to screw up more military descriptions. The descriptions of tactics are incorrect; the descriptions of strategy are incorrect; and the material completely fails to show how ancient and medieval armies were recruited, trained, armed, supported, paid, transported to battle, managed (or often mismanaged) in battle, or demobilized. There is no sense of any relationship among social structure, tactics, weapons technology, and force structure. This material is inexcusably poorly researched.

Overall rating: no stars
One of the worst excuses for a "how to" book that I've seen in years. The contributors should be embarassed. The book is not "complete," and it's not a "reference" either.

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