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Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Everyone has one of those silly books that they're incredibly attached to. Something about it just stirs your heart, and even if the language is simple and the concepts basic, you laugh every time and read it again and again. For many people, these books are those like the Harry Potter series; for others, it's The Enchanted Wood.
The Dark Lord of Derkholm is mine. And it's not because I read it when I was very young; in fact, I picked it up off a neglected bottom shelf at my small town library when I was 15 because it happened to be next to Howl's Moving Castle, which I was reading in preparation for the animated film. Something about it snagged my attention, and I proceeded to read it twice before I had to return it. I ordered my own weatherbeaten paperback and have read it at least twice a year since.
Diana Wynne Jones, who has a knack for bringing a sense of humor to the genre of fantasy, has created a world with charm, wonder, and intrigue. Derk, a homely wizard who creates unique animals (e.g. daylight owls, pigs that fly, and intelligent griffins) finds himself pegged to play the role of the Dark Lord for the Pilgrim Parties, tours that annually come through Derk's world and make a proper mess of everything. Derk and his people are contractually bound to play along, pretending that their fairly well-developed world is a medieval waste living in fear of the Sauron-like Dark Lord, and the Pilgrim Parties each think that their role in their tour is to kill him and liberate the world. However, as Derk scrambles to put his life aside to perform the role, other wizards work behind the scenes to end the Pilgrim Parties forever.
We meet dozens of hilarious, colorful characters, such as Derk's family, which is composed of his wife, son, and daughter, and five griffins he has mixed with human cells "to make them people," as one of them explains. Each one behaves just like a peevish human teenager, and Derk's relationship with each of them is heartfelt. By the end of the story, we've nearly forgotten that they're griffins. Jones also presents ordinary domestic stresses to the story, weaving them neatly in with the magic of the world, creating a believable family with believable problems.
Oftentimes, fantasy writers are so caught up with creating their worlds and developing the science, characters, and plot, they lose their voices as storytellers and become mere documentarians. Jones skilfully paints her world with so many joyful details, kingdoms, and stories that we are dazzled from the beginning; add her dry, subtle sense of humor, and you have a masterpiece. She masterfully satirizes the fantasy genre while adding an unforgettable piece to it.
Derk is, of course, the man around which the entire novel whirls, but Jones easily transports us to and fro across the world to catch up the most important pieces of the story without losing us along the way. Communicating stress in a novel can be a dangerous thing (you don't want your readers to become too stressed themselves to keep reading) but Jones does it playfully, yet strongly enough to induce her audience to pitying our favorite wizard. Derk is just a harassed, unfortunate man, and yet a symbol of strength and steadfastness; just what a father should be. And yet, everything goes wrong.
Jones's main point in the story is to remind us how very little we are in control once we give ourselves away. Sometimes, giving up control can be a good thing, like submitting to those we love; however, sometimes it can be so easy to just give in to those who want control, and for the sake of those we love, we cannot stop watching for what is best for our world. The end does not justify the means; collateral damage is necessary, but people's feelings must always be considered.
Maybe this novel doesn't change the earth, but it worms its way into your heart, never to be forgotten. With lighthearted love for that world, readers of every age can enjoy The Dark Lord of Derkholm and its manifold virtues. At any rate, it's worlds better than your average R.A. Salvatore novel. All of Diana Wynne Jones's novels satirize fantasy, but this one does it best.
The novel has no conclusive ending, but in the mood of the story, we don't miss it. Life goes on. Its sequel, The Year of the Griffin, was published in 2010; I have yet to read it, but be sure I'll get around to it.
Because this novel is quite old now, it's available in most book stores, or on the Kindle for $6.64. Or, if you want a printed copy, it's available at Barnes and Noble in paperback for $7.99, which I recommend. Pick up one from your library if you can, but if not, it's worth the purchase. It's pretty bloodless and devoid of serious swearing, so kids can enjoy it. That is, once their parents are done with it.