Title: Dark Lord of Derkholm
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Series: Derkholm #1
If it weren’t for Mr. Chesney, people would be much happier. He’s an offworld businessman who’s turned Derk’s world into a fantasy theme park for tourists—and the powerful demon backing him up means the world has little choice but to go along with it. Derk himself is an ordinary man, who prefers to spend his wizardry on creating fantastic animals and plants, but when he’s assigned the post of this year’s Dark Lord, he has to upend his life to do everything by Mr. Chesney’s book. Only Derk never was much good at being conventional. And this year’s Pilgrim Parties have no idea what they’re in for.
I remember the first time I read this, when a friend of mine brought over her library book and I, upon seeing the gryphon on the cover, promptly read half of it before she had to go home, then went to the library to get myself a copy to finish it. My feelings about this book haven’t changed a bit. It’s still utterly brilliant.
On the one hand, you have a satire of badly-written fantasy books. Mr. Chesney has very particular ideas, like how all wizards have beards, Pilgrims are kidnapped by pirates or slavers, have a Coliseum adventure, experience battles, are seduced by an Enchantress, and go home after slaying the Dark Lord. And we get a behind-the-scenes view on how this year’s Dark Lord is conducting a very elaborate play with everyone else in the world to make sure this is what they do indeed experience. On the other hand, she remarkably also plays it straight—Mr. Chesney is subtly called out to be the true Dark Lord, whose weakness is the fact that all his power resides in the demon and not himself, and so on (to say too much would spoil some of the excellent twists).
Then you have Derk. He is, on first glance, exactly the sort of wizard who would seem perfect for a Dark Lord. He uses magic to make gryphons, flying horses, flying pigs, intelligent geese, invisible cats, carnivorous sheep, already-roasted-coffee plants, nylon, carnivorous plants, and more. But he’s a farmer/inventor at heart. He truly loves his creations—the gryphons are as much his children as his human children. They have a big, wacky family, but it is a family. And when the tours put a strain on his marriage and his familial bonds, Derk reacts very badly. Because what’s most important to him is not pleasing Mr. Chesney, or even not dying at the hands of Mr. Chesney’s demon. And it’s his love for his family, more than any great acts of wizardry or the united efforts of the rest of the world, that put an end to the tours for good.
In addition to Derk, much of the plot follows Blade, Derk’s son and a middle child. Each of the kids is so different, human and gryphon. Shona is the eldest, and setting herself up to be a bard, and has buckets of musical talent in addition to a propensity to take charge and order people around. Lydda is the only gryphon who not only likes human cooking but adores it, and as a consequence tends to overeat. Callette is the intellectual gryphon who discovers calculators when Mr. Chesney has a meeting at Derk’s house, and goes quite mad for electronics (she has, clearly, inherited Derk’s inventor side). Kit is the oldest gryphon, Derk’s first success, and just hitting that awkward stage where he’s nearly an adult but not quite, and bounces from overbearing to insecure. Don is quiet and competent. Elda is the youngest, the baby of the family. And Blade, the second human son and practically twin to Callette, is a fledgling wizard who can’t convince his father to allow him to go to university to study magic. Somehow everyone pulls together to support Derk in their own ways.
In addition, although the story mostly keeps its tight focus on the family, we have Querida, the High Chancellor Wizards’ University, providing more of a birds-eye view of the overall drama, the hidden war between the world and Mr. Chesney, which Derk, despite being a rather central figure in their plot, has not been told about.
And then there are dragons, dwarves, wizards, elves, and various kinds of people who have got themselves involved.
There are some dark moments, especially with Shona, that even though the plot doesn’t spend a lot of time on what actually happens, may make this unsuitable for young children (though, given the lack of detail, it’s also very possible they’ll miss the deeper implications of what probably happened). But I am grateful for the way the prose doesn’t fixate on the bad things, and offers Shona a very quick restitution.
Overall, though, this remains tied with Archer’s Goon for my favorite Diana Wynne Jones book. I love the gryphons to pieces, the plot is amazing, and the characters come so much alive. I rate this book Highly Recommended.