The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones

The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne JonesThe Dark Lord of Derkholm (Derkholm #1) by Diana Wynne Jones
Published: Gollancz (1998), Paperback, 328pg
Source: Bought
Genres: Fantasy, Fiction

Mr. Chesney operates Pilgrim Parties, a tour group that takes paying participants into an outer realm where the inhabitants play frightening and foreboding roles. The time has come to end the staged madness . . . but can it really be stopped? Master storyteller Diana Wynne Jones serves up twists and turns, introduces Querida, Derk, Blade, and Shona and a remarkable cast of wizards, soldiers, kings, dragons, and griffins, and mixes in a lively dash of humor. With all the ingredients of high fantasy, this unforgettable novel will delight fans old and new. (from Amazon)

I think my favorite Diana Wynne Jones books are when she mixes humor with more serious stuff. The Dark Lord of Derkholm is a great example of that: it’s scary because it dips into the more depressing aspects of humanity, but it’s also really funny because it’s a spoof on swords and sorcery stories.

The world of The Dark Lord of Derkholm is one where an entire planet has been turned into an amusement park for tourists wanting to live the life of what they THINK a (fantasy) adventurer/hero would do. They go on hikes and sleep in taverns, they join in on battles against evil ne’er-do-wells, they follow clues that lead to the one thing that’ll defeat the Big Bad, and then (against all odds!) they DO defeat the Big Bad! I think it’s something like a Ren Faire, only effed up.

Here’s where the horror part comes in: the Dark Lord of Derkholm people don’t LIKE being an amusement park world. Who would? Your town gets taken over and destroyed, your friends and family are killed for a bit of profit, various magical creatures are enslaved or kicked out, huge amounts of criminals are transported in pissed off and weaponized, and you’re not even getting a very big cut of the profits.1 Their society has ground to a halt; they can’t grow anything because it all gets destroyed anyway, their wizards haven’t thought of anything new in four decades, etc. etc. Depressing!

And yet it’s also really funny (in a dark comedy sort of way), because once you get into the meaty part of the story it’s HILARIOUS. The best part starts when Blade leads a tourist party around, not least because you finally get to see what the adventure tourists are actually like. Not surprisingly, they’re mostly horrible.

There’s other little horror/scary-type stuff, including a fairly traumatic assault/rape scene that I didn’t remember happening from the first time I read this. It gets “fixed” (magically) but it lingers over the rest of the book, I think. Then later there’s some death, major depression of a main character, someone trying to trap one of the griffins and turn her into a pet (even though the trapper really should know better), and other bad stuff.

Also there’s a flying horse called Pretty who’s a real scamp. It all balances out pretty well.

In some of my other DWJ March reviews this month I said that I didn’t like it when people don’t get punished for doing bad things. I (mostly) take that back. I like it when people feel BAD about doing something bad. The guilt, y’see, is key.2 And I think that it really only bugs me when it’s a character who’s fairly front-and-center, someone who you get to know through the course of the book and you might even like them and then BOOM, they do something horrible (or turned out to have done something horrible).

For example, Roddy’s so-called friend in The Merlin Conspiracy knew he did something bad, but he didn’t apologize for it and he didn’t seem to be feeling any guilt about it except for getting caught. THAT’S what really annoyed me, what set me off about the punishment of baddies thing. It’s fine for mostly-offscreen baddies to be terrible and unrepentant about it, but onscreen ones (or hidden baddies) need the GUILT. (Or, failing that, some sort of morality lesson.)

I’m getting off topic here so I’ll stop for now. If you like humor stories, or spoofs about beloved genres, you’d probably like The Dark Lord of Derkholm. It’s got lots of interesting characters, excellent worldbuilding, a somewhat slow plot that nevertheless manages to keep one’s attention, and some nifty things about what makes a person/what makes a family/what does being those things mean/etc. It’s lovely and terrifying and I really do need to work out my feelings re:villains and their comeuppance.3

Read: March 7, 2013 (reread)


  1. Since The Dark Lord of Derkholm people didn’t seem to fight becoming an amusement park very hard, apparently, some of them must have thought it’d be a good idea after all. Another horror thing– people can be SO stupid, sometimes. And depressingly interested in financial gains above all else.
  2. I really do think there’s something wrong with me.
  3. I THINK it only bothers me in DWJ’s books. I just read a Terry Pratchett book where people do really bad things but nothing happens except for maybe getting a kick in the nuts. And I wasn’t annoyed! I just went on with the story and enjoyed myself. There’s something about DWJ’s books that brings out the Aesop in me, but I don’t know what. I don’t think I always used to be this way– I think it’s Dogsbody’s fault. Now there’s something to think about. Hm.

6 thoughts on “The Dark Lord of Derkholm by Diana Wynne Jones”

  1. I really, really, really do not like that one scene with Shona. At all. And it’s probably the reason Dark Lord of Derkholm has never been one of my favorites, even though I do love it a lot. I just love the sequel much much better. But that scene upset me considerably — especially that Blake could see what was happening and couldn’t do anything about it — and you’re right, it does hover over the rest of the book. (Alas)

    1. I didn’t like either that the aftermath just got handwaved away by magic. I mean, I’m glad it helped her! But it was kinda like “traumatic event, traumatic aftermath, magical bandaid BOOM everything’s better.” Hm.

  2. This is one of my favorites, I think because it’s dark but funny. It’s more realistic in the way that Fire and Hemlock is — relationships are complicated, situations have real peril and there’s a lot of unhappiness. But at the same time, almost everyone makes it through unscathed. There’s damage but it can heal. God, this book is just so SMART, isn’t it?

    1. It is! And I really need to get the sequel soon. I think I read it before, but I can’t remember anything that happens in it. It’ll almost be like reading it for the first time again! Exciting!

  3. That was pretty much Kit’s attitude: he really thought he could have solved it fairly early, but he wanted the Big Bad to feel guilty. I think that may have been in the Big A’s mind, too, since he also didn’t kill the creep – at least, not right away.

    Regarding how it all got started – I think it developed slowly, over time. I figure first there was one tour group, which didn’t seem that bad, then the next year maybe five groups, then suddenly it’s twenty, and more every year, etc. The pay gets cut and the work increases, anyone who objects gets demoned, more ideas are added (and some of the subcultures were just fine with making things even worse), until finally things reach a crisis point. It took time to get into that condition.

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