Diana Wynne Jones was a powerhouse in the world of children’s literature, writing more than 40 books in her career, including well-known favorites like Howl’s Moving Castle and the Chrestomanci series. Today, I’m reviewing one of her funniest novels, 1998’s Dark Lord of Derkholm.
Pilgrim Parties are the worst. Every year, the world where magical geneticist-slash-farmer Derk and his family live is overrun with tourists from a faraway land called Earth who want to have the full cliche-packed fantasy adventure experience, including a pitched final battle against the Dark Lord. All of this is forced on the hapless denizens of Fantasyland by an evil CEO and his powerful demon. This year, though, the Oracles have declared that there is a way to end the tours for good: make Derk this year’s Dark Lord.
I’m not going to beat around the bush: I love Dark Lord of Derkholm a lot, and have for years. Diana Wynne Jones was one of the finest children’s authors of the last 50 years and I recommend her books to anyone who likes a little satire and snark in their fantasy. Of all of her books, though, I think Dark Lord of Derkholm and its sequel, The Year of the Griffin, are the most “modern.”
Dark Lord of Derkholm feels almost prescient these days. The villain is an ultra-cynical hybrid of Walt Disney and Jeff Bezos, the kind of evil CEO who felt cartoonish until the tech boom showed us just how low corporations can go. It’s also hard not to see the exploitation of post-Lord of the Rings New Zealand in the story.
The large ensemble cast of the book — some human, some griffin — gives Jones plenty of room to explore multiple perspectives and differences in privilege through the lens of fantasy tropes. The women in the book are all pressured to take on sexualized roles in the tours (although Jones keeps it strictly PG), while the fantasy creatures are stereotyped and treated as second-class citizens by the Pilgrim Parties. Issues of labor rights, personhood, civil disobedience, and cultural appropriation are the driving conflicts of the book, which are clear and easy to understand even for younger readers.
This book is also side-splittingly funny. Its only real downside is that you have to have a certain working knowledge of the fantasy genre and (bad) fantasy tropes to understand what it is parodying. A reader familiar with The Hobbit or any fantasy-adventure video game from the last 20 years should get the gist, but I wouldn’t recommend it for someone who doesn’t already read a lot of fantasy.
Does Dark Lord of Derkholm withstand the test of time? Yes, I think it does!
I would recommend this book for readers of any age, especially for the ones who have read every fantasy book and want a good laugh about some of the sillier, outdated tropes of the genre. There is even a hilarious companion book, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, that is a satirical travel guide for the Pilgrim Parties. No fantasy library is complete without it.
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