Friday, July 30, 2021

The Tough Guide to Fantasyland and The Dark Lord of Derkholm - #FridayReads #WeekendReads

Click to enlarge
Pages 50-51 of The Tough Guide to Fantasyland
(OMT stands for "Official Management Term")

We’ve covered the use of tropes in fiction this month, so it’s apt to end July with a review of the ultimate in tropic tongue-in-cheek fantasy fun.

Diana Wynne Jones
wrote The Tough Guide to Fantasyland in 1996, and followed it up with The Dark Lord of Derkholm in 1998, and its sequel, The Year of the Griffin, published in 2000. Derkholm and The Tough Guide go hand-in-hand, although they can be read as standalones without spoilers. The Tough Guide is a dictionary of fantasy tropes, written as though the reader is on a tour of a theme-park-style world – an alphabetical list of what to expect. The Dark Lord of Derkholm is that tour, from the point of view of the world’s “Dark Lord”.

With a twist.

The people and resources of “Fantasyland” have been exploited for generations by Mr Chesney, the owner of a specialist tour company that runs adventure holidays in their extraordinary magical world for the ordinary people of our ordinary world. At the end of their tether, the citizens of Fantasyland have decided to try and sabotage the tours, starting by appointing a wizard named Derk (pretty much the equivalent of Arthur Weasley) as this year’s Dark Lord (i.e., the equivalent of “Voldemort”).

Yes, it’s exactly as hilarious as it sounds.

With the help of his large family (some of whom happen to be sapient, talking griffins) and a whole lot of farm animals (some of which are also able to talk), Derk must harness a demon and a dragon, and convince one of the gods to Manifest to each tour group, before finally succumbing to the Forces of Good (i.e., the tour group du jour) and “dying” in a convincing and satisfying manner.

Despite being a parody, The Dark Lord of Derkholm has surprising depth to it as it deals with exploitation of all kinds. There’s a delightful subplot of the women of Fantasyland staging their own rebellion. If you’ve read even just half a fantasy book in the past, you’ll appreciate the comedic prowess of the late Diana Wynne Jones as she dissects the genre with effortless precision -- and tells a darn good story in the process.

Reviewed by Elle Carter Neal. Elle is the author of the middle grade fantasy The Convoluted Key (first in the Draconian Rules series), the picture book I Own All the Blue, and teen science-fantasy novel Madison Lane and the Wand of Rasputin. She is based in Melbourne, Australia. Find her at

Photo by Amanda Meryle Photography



  1. Did you wonder if this was an inspiration for J K Rowling and her Harry Potter series? Seems every genre has tried and true tropes or themes, which proves there really isn't anything new, only an offshoot of the old.

    1. Quite possibly. Especially the "Leathery-winged Avians" - although I very accidentally inserted some of those in my own fantasy book (I happened to glance at a book my dinosaur-mad son had taken out of the library... on pterodactyls. LOL)

      JK Rowling has also been influenced by Jill Murphy's Worst Witch series and quite extensively by Edith Nesbit. :-)

    2. Although, with Harry Potter first published in 1997, I don't know that Rowling would have had time to read these particular books of Diana Wynne Jones's beforehand - being busy writing Book 1 with a small baby in tow. Once she sold Book 1, she would have been busy on the rest of the series. Maybe she picked the Tough Guide up later on...

  2. It seems that tropes have worked their way into most if not all fiction genres. This has been an enlightening month, at least for this writer. :-)

    1. Certainly. It's literary shorthand. Readers like comforting familiarity, and writers are readers first :-)

  3. Thanks for the introduction to these books that look like so much fun to read. Like I really need another book. Like I really want to start reading fantasy. LOL


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