Diana Wynne Jones is one of my very favorite authors, so this review of Dark Lord of Derkholm (which now officially one of my favorite DWJ books) will be somewhat biased (although I haven’t loved everything I’ve read by her, but I’ve never hated anything either). What I love best about her work is her uncanny ability to transport her readers to a different, fully-realized world. Not only does she take you there, but you want to curl up and take up residence—DWJ’s stories are never truly over. Even after you turn the page, you suspect that there is much more to the story, and you want to linger there long after she’s concluded her tale. To me, that’s what separates good stories from great ones. She also populates her stories with great characters—flawed, but memorable and sympathetic. There’s no sense in having a wonderfully detailed world, if the reader hates everyone that lives there.
Dark Lord of Derkholm has all of these characteristics and more. It is partly a parody of well-known fantasy tropes (quests, swords and sorcery, etc.) as well as a purely entertaining story all on its own. In typical DWJ fashion, she throws the reader into the story, not bothering to stop while you catch up and try to remember everyone’s name (and there are LOTS of names to remember here). The story opens on the University Emergency Committee meeting in a world parallel to our own (neither the university nor the world are ever named). We learn that Mr. Chesney’s annual pilgrim parties, in which outworlders pay large sums of money for the “authentic” fantasy adventure, have devastated the world for the last 40 years. Villages are torn down, fields are razed, and people are killed—all for Mr. Chesney’s tours and only because he has a powerful demon (literally) in his pocket forcing the wizards to do his bidding. In this world, everyone is an actor and must play his part, or be fined or even killed.
High Chancellor Querida (the head of the university and the most powerful wizard in the world), tired of Chesney and his exploitation, sets out to end Chesney’s tours. After convincing the Committee that the tours must end and visiting the White and Black Oracles, Querida appoints mild-mannered Wizard Derk to play the role of this year’s Dark Lord. At Chesney’s command, Derk is forced to plan battles, lead disgruntled soldiers, conjure a demon, and battle the Forces of Good. When Derk angers a dragon, and ends up on a coma, his children jump into the fray to help keep the pilgrim parties moving, and unwittingly unravel Mr. Chesney’s control over their world.
Funny, clever, and utterly charming, Dark Lord of Derkholm is one of Jones’ best novels. There are many inventive details that make this novel memorable, especially Derk’s animals: the carnivorous sheep, the sarcastic geese, the flying pigs, and, of course, the griffins. I loved the real family dynamic Jones portrays, as well as the complex, sinuous plotting. If you like your fiction spoon-fed, this isn’t the book for you. This isn’t a book for younger readers, either. There are several scary and disturbing scenes, and several deaths throughout the story. But if you’re looking for a wholly engaging, side-splitting adventure, Dark Lord of Derkholm is the one for you.