The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Fantasy

Originally written May 1999

This book is an excellent attempt at an overview of the fantasy genre. While it is far from comprehensive, it does contain more than enough for any fan of the genre.

The book itself is about 10 inches wide by 11 inches tall, and the pages are slick, high-quality paper. It is in full color, with artwork throughout. The art is a lot like what you’d expect to find in a book of this nature; photos from film and television, as well as artwork taken from books, and some related folk pieces as well. All in all, it does a very good job of showing the wide variety of fantasy imagery.

The book itself is laid out in a pleasing, two-column fashion, easy to read, with captions on almost all the artwork. It opens with a brief, entertaining foreword by Terry Pratchett (of Discworld fame), and then dives right into the material.

The first chapter is actually an introduction that attempts to trace the roots of modern fantasy back to the myths and legends of classical Greece. While it does its best, people have been trying to define just what is and isn’t fantasy for years; it is small surprise that in the end their definition of fantasy sounds a lot like Orson Scott Card’s definition of Science Fiction (Science Fiction is what I point at when I say ‘This is Science Fiction’).

The next chapter breaks the genre down into nine subgenres, covering the classic fairy tale, heroic fantasy, magic realism, and others. This chapter actually ends up defining fantasy more effectively than the introduction, as it narrows the field. It is explained that while the subgenres are hardly the only categories, and can cross over, they establish a fairly solid guide as to just what falls within the realm of fantasy.

The next two chapters cover fantasy in film and television, respectively, offering capsule summaries of almost every major film and TV show that falls under the fantasy genre. This is probably the best section of the book, as it provides an excellent resource for fans to track down films and TV shows they may have missed. The list is chronological, presumably to trace the development of the genre within these media. There are one or two glaring omissions (most notably Quantum Leap which is clearly fantasy despite its sci-fi trappings; it gets a mention in another entry, but doesn’t have an entry of its own) but on the whole it does a very adequate job of covering fantasy film and TV.

Then we have a Who’s Who of Fantasy chapter, which lists a significant number of fantasy authors. Once again, there are some authors omitted, but this can be chalked up to space considerations. A listing of all fantasy authors would in itself make a book of this size. Most notably absent (in my mind) is Harlan Ellison. While he isn’t exclusively fantasy (perhaps the reason why he isn’t included), his fantasy works have been among the most celebrated and influential writings of the present day.

Next comes an A-Z of Fantasy Characters and Entities which, like the other chapters, does a good job of giving an overview of the major personalities that populate the pages of fantasy fiction. Once again, there are omissions, but with such a wide scope of material to choose from, these can be forgiven.

Chapter 7 is a brief write-up of the evolution of fantasy gaming, touching briefly on RPGs, computer games, and even collectible card games (like Magic: The Gathering). The most influential products are discussed, and others are mentioned, but this chapter is inadequate compared to the others. Once again, however, this can be forgiven, as a more thorough examination of fantasy gaming would take up a great deal more space (I suggest the excellent Fantasy Role-Playing Gamer’s Bible by Sean Patrick Fannon for more on the subject).

Additional Note from 2015: For even more examination of fantasy RPGs, check out Designers and Dragons, a 4-volume exploration of the history of RPGs from its origins to the present day.

The next chapter is entitled Fantasy Worlds and gives an overview of some of the most popular and enduring “secondary worlds” of fantasy including Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Howard’s Hyborian Age, and Pratchett’s Discworld. This chapter does a good job of giving an overview of the worlds it covers, but once again there will probably be one or two that individual readers feel should be included but aren’t.

Chapter 8 is a chronological list of fantasy magazines starting at around the turn of the century. The listing is (like the other chapters) far from complete, but once again, this can be forgiven due to space considerations.

Finally, there is an excellent glossary and index.

In all, this is a fantastic book. It does an excellent job of collecting a wide variety of information on a very broadly defined genre. While it is far from comprehensive, it does provide an excellent starting point for people who want to explore the genre in more depth. In addition, the book itself is extremely attractive in layout and design, with extensive artwork and colored bands at the top of the page to make finding the various chapters easier.

Any fan of the genre should track down a copy of this book and at least take a look at it. Like me, you should find it a wonderful addition to your bookshelf.

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