You know, more about I love Diana Wynne Jones and have for many years. Every few weeks I go on a rant about how she’s 14 million times better an author than J. K. Rowling, neurologist and The Dark Lord of Derkholm is now one of my examples why.
Ben (my boyfriend; also my web guru) had been trying to get me to read this book for months, saying he thought it was clearly her best work. When a really nice hardbound copy showed up at Half-Price Books, he bought it, and I finally read it. It was worth every single page. From one of the most innovative and NON-info-dumpy opening scenes to the amazing characters to the wonderful non-humans and amazing ideas . . . Well, in short, Diana Wynne Jones wrote The Tough Guide to Fantasyland, and she follows her own advice.
In the world of this book, there are wizards — a lot of them, both male and female. (They don’t do anything as sexist as call female wizards ‘witches’, because there’s a serious gender gap between the respect given to a wizard vs. a witch. Take that, JKR.) Unfortunately, there’s also Mr. Chesney, who’s sold his soul to a demon in exchange for being able to run, well, basically Fantasyland tours. They’re interactive tours, though, more like a dude ranch in Middle Earth. He comes in once a year and orders everyone around, forcing them to have battles, sack towns, and, generally speaking, ruin everything when the tours are in. The world is given a few months to recover, and then they’re back at it again. So the wizards decide to do something about it this time, finally, after 40 years of this mess, and after consulting an Oracle or two, they make the unlikely wizard Derk the Dark Lord this year. (Derk lives at Derkholm. Naturally.) Derk is, well, a farmer, mostly, and he has a wife who deals in miniature universes and seven children — two human and five griffin. Nothing goes quite as planned: mayhem erupts, many illegal things are found to be happening, etc. so forth, and the story continues at a rollicking good pace until it reaches an amusing yet satisfying end.
Derk is a great character — he doesn’t really want his human son, Blade, to go to the Wizard University because he thinks that all they teach is conformity there. Derk himself didn’t do very well there since it appears his talents lie in hybridizing plants and animals — did I mention the griffin children? They’re human-intelligent and all adolescents as the book takes place, which lends itself very well to comedy. Derk’s just sort of a house-husband type, maybe a little overweight and balding, maybe just really fond of his flying pigs and the like. He’s perfectly good at things like illusions, but he’d just rather make new creatures or grow already-roasted coffee beans. (Can you imagine how wonderful those would be in this world?) He lets his wife, Mara, who is spectacularly beautiful and quite talented with miniature universes — yes, I said MINIATURE UNIVERSES — do all the ambitious, interesting things. The older human child, Shona, wants to be a Bard, and undoubtedly will. However, despite their talents and ambitions, the entire family is roped into doing various things to help with the tours.
The griffin kids — all five of them — are awesome. They’re all different, all detailed, all interesting — they all have their strengths. A couple go through ugly-duckling like transformations. There really are tropes and stereotypes here — it’s hard to write a coherent book without them — but they’re done so wonderfully that they’re a help, not a hindrance. Dragons and gold, the ugly-duckling middle child being beautiful, falling in love with an unsuitable, a misunderstanding between spouses that’s based on nothing . . .
This book is just awesome.
My favorite character is the geese. Derk bred them to be intelligent, you know, and they turned out . . . sarcastic. As they would. They’re great.
Highly recommended. I’d give it six stars out of five if I could. As it is, it gets a perfect five.