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Diana Wynne Jones – Dark Lord of Derkholm

October 9, 2008

122. Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones (1998)

Length: 345 pages

Genre: Fantasy

Started: 07 October 2008
Finished: 09 October 2008

Too many tourists?
Hire an incompetent
Dark Lord. Problem solved!

Summary: The world’s in trouble, and the University Emergency Committee has been convened to decide what to do about it. Their world is being used as a theme park for tour groups, and they are bound by demon-enforced contracts to provide a proper adventure for each Pilgrim Party that comes though – complete with a wizard guide, bandits, the Wild Hunt, an Evil Enchantress, a battle between the forces of Good and the forces of Evil, and ultimately a chance for the Pilgrims to defeat the Dark Lord – no matter the cost to the land, the townsfolk, or the livelihood and mental well-being of whoever has been appointed to play the Dark Lord in any given year.

When an Oracle says that the best way to stop the tours is to appoint the Wizard Derk as Dark Lord, the Committee cheerfully obliges. Derk wants nothing more than to stay at home with his children (two human, five griffin), his farm, and his animals, and the committee is sure he’ll bungle things up nicely. However, when Derk is injured in an accident right before the start of tourist season and his children are forced to take over his Dark Lord duties, things start going more wrong than anyone could have imagined.

Review: Diana Wynne Jones is not much for introductions – she tosses the reader straight into the middle of things and expects them to work out what’s going on. Here, it works mostly to her advantage by hooking the reader in quickly and effectively, although it also has the effect of relegating supporting characters quickly to one-dimension-ville. There’s a lot going on, and some of the tertiary story threads do kind of get lost when the reader’s asked to hold all of them in her mind.

I’ve seen this book variously listed as Young Adult and Adult, and while there’s certainly nothing here that would be inaccessible or inappropriate, even for younger teens, it just didn’t have the feel of a young-adult book to me. Maybe it’s because, like most satire, getting most of the humor depends on being conversant with the genre standards (although The Enchanted Forest Chronicles by Patricia C. Wrede strike a similar satirical tone, while still definitely feeling like YA). I was also surprised with the depth of the story: hiding underneath the satire is actually a family story with a fair bit of heart. Derk and Mara’s human and griffin children each had clear, well-developed personalities, and I liked watching the siblings interacting with each other and with their parents more than any other part of the book – although it makes me glad my brother didn’t have talons.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed this clever, fast-moving, funny send-up of the fantasy genre. It’s getting four stars mainly because while I enjoyed it, I was never really fully absorbed in the story the way I’d expect from a five-star book. 4 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Non-fantasy fans aren’t going to get most of the jokes, but for those familiar with the tropes, it’s a fun read with some surprising emotional depth.

This Review on LibraryThing | This Book on LibraryThing | This Book on Amazon

Other Reviews: Armadillo’s Book Blog, Sonderbooks, Green Man Review
Did I miss your review? Leave a comment with the link and I’ll add it in.

First Line: “Will you all be quiet!” snapped High Chancellor Querida.


  • p. 86: “It took a step toward Derk on its three lissome leglike parts.” – lithesome or lithe, esp. of body; supple; flexible.
  • p. 223: ““I’d need to change you a bit – you have to look swart, you know – nothing radical, though, there’s no time.”” – swarthy. (I suspected as much, but I wanted to make sure.)
  • p. 323: ““She hit them with a besom for making such a mess,” Callette said.” – a broom, esp. one of brush or twigs
11 Comments leave one →
  1. October 9, 2008 8:00 pm

    I hate admitting such a thing, but I’ve yet to read any of her books. I did just buy Fire and Hemlock, so I hope to change that soon. I have to say, this one sounds really good. Heck, I was sold with your haiku review!

  2. October 9, 2008 9:04 pm

    Debi – No worries! I’ve only read two of her books (this one and Howl’s), and I only started in June, so you’re not that far behind. :) She’s so prolific, though, there’s plenty to choose from!

  3. October 10, 2008 8:31 am

    Nicki, you’ve been reading a lot of fantasy lately.

    Enjoyed the review!

  4. October 10, 2008 8:38 am

    It’s true! Maybe it’s backlash from the week where three books in a row were historical fiction set in the 1300s (The Gargoyle / Crispin: The Cross of Lead / Immortal).

  5. October 10, 2008 2:16 pm

    I adore Diana Wynne Jones, but I haven’t read this one yet. You made me want to get it this very minute, though!

  6. October 10, 2008 2:38 pm

    Nymeth – As a Diana Wynne Jones veteran, what of hers do you suggest reading next?

  7. October 10, 2008 8:44 pm

    Wow it certainly does sound like she chunks you into the fray with no notice. Just reading the summary sounds exciting and even a little daunting!

  8. October 11, 2008 3:43 pm

    My absolute favourite book of hers is Fire & Hemlock. It’s one of my absolute favourite books, period! Another one I recommend is Howl’s Moving Story. It’s not quite as good (for me, anyway), but it’s maybe a bit more accessible.

  9. October 12, 2008 11:03 am

    Ladytink – You definitely have to pay attention in the first few chapters, but it does come together soon enough that I didn’t spend the entire book half-lost.

    Nymeth – Fire & Hemlock just went onto my wishlist!

  10. November 12, 2009 12:32 pm

    I just finished this one and loved it! I found myself thinking the same thing – I’d have put this in adult fiction because of its complexity and also the age range of the main characters – some are teens, but others are middle-aged and even elderly. What a lot of fun! Have you read the sequel yet?


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