There are many, many books on the craft of writing, but not so many that focus on fantasy. I've been disappointed with most of the books on writing fantasy, but the WRITER'S COMPLETE FANTASY REFERENCE is a good reference for being a better writer and reader of fantasy.
It gets into the details of what matters when reading and writing fantasy and has tons of sketches. It's more like a cultural encyclopedia than a craft of writing book.
I would say that the top strength of this book is it's focus on world building and its use of sketches.
Let's say that you want to tackle a George R.R. Martin book, or another epic fantasy that describes knights in battle. You could use this book as a reference to get a very detailed visual on different types of weapons, different parts of a knight's armor, and the anatomy of a castle.
The problem with reading fantasy comes when the reader does not know the terms that the author is using. The author might write that the enemy used both trebuchets and catapults to storm the castle. As a reader you might wonder what the difference is. They both hurl rocks, right? That can be a bit frustrating. Well, just reference your handy dandy fantasy reference book and you can get a very good sense of the difference. Just in case you were wondering, a trebuchet is a sixty foot tall siege engine that is used to assault a castle with three hundred pound rocks, or cattle, from 200-300 yards away. A trebuchet is more destructive and more expensive than a catapult (just in case you were in the market for a siege engine).
One of the other things that I love about this book is that it does not just focus on fantasy worlds built around European cultures. Among other things, there is a chapter on the following world cultures.
This chapter gets into the dynamics of culture that are relevant to a writer interested in world building.
So, let's say you are not a fantasy reader or a fantasy writer. You might be thinking, "Why should I care about all this stuff?"
Well, just as character building and conflict are essential to any good novel, so to is a sense of the place a character is from and the place where the story or action takes place. If you can convey a sense of time and place, a sense of how the culture works, readers (even nonfantasy readers) will be much, much more into your novel. I bet you could think of nonfantasy books and movies that made the most of cultural elements. MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING and BREAKING AWAY are two movies about contemporary life that come to mind. BEND IT LIKE BECKHAM is another.
I love to know how people work within a culture, especially when they struggle against it or find meaning in it. Are there things you could do or have done to give your reader a sense of time and place, a sense of how the story world works.
If you have not read Jeanne Dupreau's THE CITY OF EMBER, you really should. The world building is wonderful. And guess what? If you are too busy to read it, you can watch a movie version that actually does a good job of telling the story. This story will be shelved in the children's section. I looked for it on the YA shelves after seeing the movie, but couldn't find it. It cracks me up how some fantasy stories can send adults into the children's section. How does that happen? I think it's the world building.
I mailed out the fifty page partial to Donald Maass on Wednesday. I will let you know when I get news, whatever the news may be.
Best of luck on your writing journey. I'd be interested in getting updates on your writing journey. Do you have any good news or tough rejection letters? And, if any one took me up on the challenge to go on adventure to find oblique details that relate to their story world, of course, let me know. I went on a great hike up in the desert mountains and will post on it soon. Hopefully some of the photos turned out well.