However let me start by telling you what I'm missing. The original product came with 2 by 3 foot colour map of middle earth. Many people rave over the glory that this map is, however, my second hand copy didn't come with the map, so my review does not cover it.
The book itself feels like a magazine, it is staple bound and 24 pages long. Most pages use a two-column layout.
The front cover uses a image is from the cartoon version of Lord of the Rings, and features no characters or identifiable buildings or landscape. This graphical choice is rather odd, I presume they were trying take advantage of the buzz around the film, although this book came out four years after the film's release. Its quite bland.
Inside the front cover is the contents list, credits and introduction. The introduction has a quite telling line. It reads...
"The entire of ICE's approach is aimed at those who want a foundation from which to work, not necessarily absolutes."
If we take that line as a guide for what they are aiming at with this product, then I will say they have built a base from which you can build, but not a lot more!
On page 1, they give us a list of their reference sources. I have no idea why. We all know the reference materials, its plainly obvious. As this product is not designed for use with MERP I guess this is because the purchaser would not have read LOTR or The Hobbit
Most of the page is taken up by a section called "Definitions and Terms" which defines role playing terms and some of the nouns common to Middle Earth such as Valar, Morgoth, Mirkwood etc. It's here that another oddity comes to the fore. The size of the font used in this section is smaller that the preceding section, and not only is it smaller, it's practicably illegibly small. Capital letters are at most three millimetres tall. I needed a magnifying glass to read this. To describe this text as dense would be an understatement. There is a lot of middle earth general-knowledge here, if you can read it.
A section called Geography starts on page 2, thankfully back at a reasonable size. This section gives you an overview of the continent of middle earth, from bodies of water to mountains and plains. Woven through the text are references to the history of world. For instance it mentions how Morgoth was responsible for the lack of symmetry in the continent.
On page 4 details of Climate and Weather weave together not only weather patterns mentioned in the source material but general real-world climatology.
Page 4 also starts a large section that covers the history of nations and politics. If you have tried to read Tolkien's Silmarillian and failed, then here you will find an extensive blow by blow summary. In fact this section is almost entirely made up of a huge time line running from Eru calling the world into being, right through to the destroying of the ring.
On page 11 is the start of a section that deals with the inhabitants of middle earth, men, elves, orcs, hobbits, balrogs, nazgul etc. Unfortunately this section is once again in the tiny tiny tiny print. It's such a shame that this section, which actually is quite fascinating is printed in a way so difficult to read.
On page 14 starts a section on languages. This section uses another font size, not the smallest in use, nor the biggest. Once again a fascinating read. You'll read about how and who uses the various languages and how the languages evolved.
If you're like me and deciphered the runes on Thorin's map using the guide in "The Hobbit" then I think you'll like this section. Most of one page here is a guide to reading and writing using the Tengwar. This is not the runes from the Hobbit, but rather the curly writing you'll have seen elsewhere (remember the glowing writing on the One Ring in the 2001 film). This boxed panel will have you breaking out the sharpies.
Onto page 17 where a section on "Power" in middle earth begins. This is a reference to the greater magical sources middle earth. Not a lot of information here.
On page 18 is a section on using middle earth in a fantasy campaign. There is nothing specific here, just general hints at how a GM should start, picking a power level and a location.
Also on this page is a section that advises on how this booklet will integrate with the "modules to come", and how to use maps. Pretty much a waste of space.
Page 19 has a BW map of middle earth showing the prevailing winds. Eh?
Page 20 has a BW map of western middle earth showing which languages are used where.
Page 21 has a BW map of middle earth showing the prevailing temperatures and rainfall.
Page 22 has a BW map of western middle earth showing major trade routes.
Page 23 has a BW map of middle earth showing … nothing in particular.
Page 24 has a BW map of middle earth showing elevations.
All of these maps seems a waste of space, considering that the booklet comes with a 2 by 3 foot map of the place in glorious colour. Why have they spent 6 pages repeating the map in not so glorious black and white, and then squeezed in the text in the tiny tiny tiny font?
Inside the back cover, is a suggested reading list that includes not only Tolkien's works but various real world histories and fantasy novels.
I'm really not sure how to rate this book in role playing terms, it's not really one thing or another. I think they have met their stated objectives. They have given a broad overview of middle earth to someone not steeped in its lore. Yet, at the same time, this really is not a role playing aid. A role playing primer perhaps?
I can clearly state that the majority of the text in here is good and will be of interest to a Tolkien fan regardless of whether they role play or not, provided their eyesight is good.
I spent £2.58 getting this via eBay (without the big colour map) and feel like it was money well spent.