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New Release Review


Tough Travels: Beginnings

Tough Travels (banner)

This is not an April Fools’ Day trick. Tough Travelling is back!

At the start of every month, Fantasy-Faction will lead you (yes, YOU!) on a tour of the fantasy genre. From high to low, from classics to new releases, from epic to urban; each month, we will guide you in search of a different trope, theme, or cliché.

Since these tropes can appear in many guises, we’ve enlisted the help of our friends and travelling companions across the blogosphere. You’ll find links to their own lists at the bottom of this post – along with the chance to submit your own!

But first, for those of you who may be wondering…


Back in 2014, Nathan Barnhart created a weekly feature called Tough Travels, which he hosted over on Fantasy Review Barn. Inspired by The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones – a tongue-in-cheek parody of the fantasy genre – it would spotlight a different trope every week, and invite other bloggers to compile their own lists of examples. Despite being put to rest eighty-three weeks later, Tough Travels was widely successful, with over fifty blogs participating at one time or another.

Ladies, gentlemen and Proudfoots, I’m delighted to announce that some of those bloggers (including Nathan) are here today on Fantasy-Faction to celebrate the exciting inauguration of Tough Travels 2.0! They’ve each contributed an entry to this collaborative list, and you can follow the links below to check out their excellent sites. In fact, I strongly urge you to do so.
Without further ado, our first topic is Beginnings.

The Hobbit by IsrianaThe Tough Guide states that you will begin in rather poor circumstances in an unimportant corner of the continent; a kitchen menial, perhaps, or a blacksmith’s apprentice. From there, the Guide advises that ‘you will be contacted by your TOUR MENTOR (normally an elderly male MAGIC USER with much experience) who will tell you what to do, which is almost certainly to discover you are a MISSING HEIR.’

– Diana Wynne Jones, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland

The Hobbit (cover)The Hobbit (J.R.R. Tolkien)

In a hole in the ground there lived a hobbit. Not a nasty, dirty, wet hole, filled with the ends of worms and an oozy smell, nor yet a dry, bare, sandy hole with nothing in it to sit down on or to eat: it was a hobbit-hole, and that means comfort. – J.R.R. Tolkien, The Hobbit

An obvious choice perhaps, but as beginnings go this is a winner on many levels. It’s a curious start to a book – how can a hole in the ground mean comfort? It definitely makes you want to read on. It has a bedtime, reading aloud to your children feel to it but at the same time feels like a story that you can also enjoy as an adult. And, as this is a new beginning for Tough Travels, I can’t help but think of the parallels.

Bilbo is himself about to go on an adventure; this is the beginning of the rest of his life. Without it, well, he would have spent a good many years in that little hobbit hole with the round door, no doubt chomping on bread and cheese and drinking wine – but he wouldn’t have seen the elves, he wouldn’t have had to riddle his way out of trouble or rescue a bunch of dwarves from gigantic spiders, he wouldn’t get ride the white water rapid in a barrel – come on, who wouldn’t want these sort of beginnings! Not to mention – a dragon.

Okay, he almost dies . . . but stop thinking of the negatives for God’s sake! There’s a dragon, that talks!

– Lynn Williams, Lynn’s Book Blog

The Colour of Magic (Terry Pratchett)

The Colour of Magic (cover)A small group watch a town on fire. Small wagers are made on what exactly caused an explosion. No one is in danger, there is no desperate escape needed. As beginnings go it isn’t the most exciting but it obviously left an impression on me. Terry Pratchett’s Discworld has been my favorite series for so long at times I forget how simple the beginning was. Just two men, chatting about a disaster they are outside of, watching the now infamous Rincewind and Twoflower show up.

The humorous thing is for a great many readers this isn’t the beginning they read. Because the more common advice is to start somewhere else in this wonderful series. And it is hard to disagree; The Color of Magic is unlike anything else in the series and in reality one could grab any Discworld book and use it as a starting point (I have even come to the conclusion that Night Watch is a perfectly fine first book for a curious reader).

But there is a real starting point to this series. And I am a seemingly rare reader who actually started there. So for me my greatest reading pleasure will always be tied to a city on fire.

– Nathan, Fantasy Review Barn

The Gunslinger (cover)The Gunslinger (Stephen King)

While there are a lot of great beginnings, there is only one iconic line that I like so much, I wear it proudly emblazoned on a menacing black hoodie. “The man in Black fled across the Desert, and the Gunslinger followed.” That, of course, comes from The Gunslinger, the first volume in Stephen King’s epic Dark Tower saga. It’s such a simple line, starkly barren of adverbs or adjectives, that reduces 4250 pages to just twelve words. Never mind context, circumstances, or back story – you are told, right from the start, that this is the story of a journey . . . a chase . . . a pursuit. Those who are disappointed in the final book seem to forget that. It’s never about attaining the Dark Tower itself; it’s about finding – and ending – the man in Black.

– Bob Milne, Beauty in Ruins

Dreamer's Pool (cover)Dreamer’s Pool (Juliet Marillier)

Not only is Dreamer’s Pool one of my favorite fantasy novels of all time, it also fits this week’s theme to a tee. When the book opens, we are introduced to the series protagonists Blackthorn and Grim, who are a pair of prisoners rotting in the dungeon of a wicked and corrupt lord. Poor circumstances? Check! A rather unimportant corner of the continent? Check! Hours before she is to be executed though, Blackthorn is visited by a fey named Conmael, who offers her chance to escape in exchange for her promise to set aside her desire for vengeance on the man who destroyed her life.

Our Tour Mentor here might not be your conventional magic user, but I would that say a faerie who can get you out of prison with the snap of his fingers comes close enough. Reluctantly, Blackthorn agrees to Conmael’s deal and makes her way north to Dalriada to start her new life, followed by fellow escapee Grim who later on becomes her most steadfast and loyal companion.

– Mogsy, The Bibliosanctum

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (cover)Twelve Kings in Sharakhai (Bradley P. Beaulieu)

Twelve Kings in Sharakhai deserves mention not just because the main character, Ceda, completely fits this month’s theme, but also because the beginning of this book absolutely kicks ass. When I see BEGINNINGS in all-caps, I immediately think of how Ceda’s opening scene in the fighting pits hooked me so completely in just the first few pages. I seriously cannot think of a stronger opening scene, at least not from my reading experience (I know, opinions will vary, but my opinion is this one destroys the competition).

Ceda is a character who kicks-ass not just in the literal fighting pit sense, but also with her strong-willed personality and determination. You can see she is setting her life’s course on to something much grander, that she will become *somebody*, and the joy is in reading her journey to become whoever or whatever that might be.

– Lisa, Tenacious Reader

And finally, my pick on behalf of Fantasy-Faction is . . .

The Magicians (cover)Magician (Raymond E. Feist)

Pug is a kitchen menial at Castle Crydee, at the far end of the kingdom. He first stumbles upon his mentor (who just happens to be an elderly magic user with much experience) in an isolated forest cottage after being caught in a storm. Yes, this one ticks all the boxes!

Though Magician is an imperfect novel, the opening – the little boy on the beach, gathering cockles from rock-pools, napping in the sun only to wake up under clouds, running into the storm-struck trees, attacked by a boar, saved by a hunter, taken to a cozy cottage, introduced to Kulgan the Royal Magician, meeting his firedrake companion sleeping beside the fire like a dog – the opening is just perfect, and the mere memory of my first time reading it fills me with delight.

– Laura M. Hughes

What other memorable beginnings have we missed? What’s your personal favourite? Are there any beginnings that – shock, horror! – ignore the Guide completely? Let us know in the comments!

The Hobbit (detail)

Next month’s topic will be . . . assassins!

Assassins are ubiquitous throughout fantasyland. Sharp-eyed readers (or even dull-eyed ones) will notice that their hooded forms often adorn book covers, and that they frequently appear – rather improbably – not to mind being the sole focus of our attention. Whether they’re spotlight hogs or camera-shy and brooding, most assassins will have trained for years and are very, very good at their job (i.e. killing people for money).

Why not join us? There’s always room in the adventuring party for one more! Add a link to your own list, or check out the others below!

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  1. Avatar Barnaby says:

    The Darkness That Comes Before by R Scott Bakker. Very atmospheric opening that really sets the tone for Prince of Nothing.

  2. Avatar G R Matthews says:

    The first thing the boy Garion remembered was the kitchen at Faldor’s farm…. No matter how high Garion rose in life, he never forgot that all his memories began in that kitchen – Pawn of Prophecy

    OK, it doesn’t mention a journey exactly, but it is implicit in the writing that the kitchen is the beginning, a place of grounding, a melting pot of ingredients from which a finished product emerges. The whole Aunt Pol being in charge, adding little touches, guiding the cooks and producing wonderful food is “just” a metaphor for the journey that Garion is about to embark upon. She guides him, adds ingredients, spices, ensures he doesn’t burn and turns out all right.

    Eddings gets some flack from readers these days who want blood, guts, sex, and grimness (just watch the BBC if you want that), but in that series he’s (they) written about a better future for people and the relationships are almost Star-Trekesque in their humour and caring…

    … and I’ll stop now.

    • I think that, grimdark aside, people are looking for fresh/original takes on the classics. Books like Pawn of Prophecy end up being (perhaps unfairly) dismissed as tropey and cheesy – but people forget that modern fantasy wouldn’t exist without authors like Eddings to inspire it and compare it to.

      I didn’t like it, but can totally see why others do.

  3. Avatar Lynn says:

    This is a great start. I confess that I could have had a very long list but I thought I should save some books for future posts.

    I will give a shout out also to John Connolly’s Book of Lost Things because I love this start:

    ‘Once upon a time – for that is how all stories should begin – there was a boy who lost his mother.

    Lynn 😀

  4. Thanks for bringing it back, Laura – looking forward to seeing where our travels take us this time. 🙂

  5. It is so exciting to have Tough Traveling back. I’m going to echo Bob here, thank you so much Laura for reviving this feature! 🙂

    • It’s a pleasure to be able to host it! 🙂 I’d like to thank everyone who made this possible: Nathan, obviously; Marc and Jennie for letting me bring it back; you, Wendy and Tiara; Lynn and Lisa and Bob and Wendell and Danya and Kaja and Maddalena and Rabindranauth and all the others who used to bring it to life . . . *sniffs* *fans self*

      In all seriousness, it really is exciting. 😀

  6. […] It’s BACK! Need I say any more? […]

  7. Agree with the others, so happy to see this come back! Thanks for hosting 🙂

  8. […] fun thing this month, is Tough Traveling is back! Laura is reviving it over at Fantasy Faction and it will be a monthly feature. The first post there was a nice collaborative effort on […]

  9. […] Tough Travelling – the fantasy-trope-based blog challenge, is back! I only took part once or twice in the individual version, and I don’t see this being a weekly thing for me. But what better time to join in than for the inaugural edition of the new version? (now operated by Fantasy Faction) […]

  10. […] The Tough Guide to Fantasyland by Diana Wynne Jones. Now it is returning as a monthly meme over at Fantasy Faction, but otherwise it will follow the same format of spotlighting a different trope and invite other […]

  11. […] feature was created by Nathan of Fantasy Review Barn back in 2014 and will now be hosted by Fantasy Faction. I decided to participate because it seems like a great way to discover new books I may be […]

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