I think that’s true to an extent, but there is an art form that goes beyond imitation that, when done well, can often be the best representation of that which it set out to mock. Northanger Abbey by Jane Austen is a perfect example of this. She set out to mock gothic literature, which she did beautifully, but what impresses me so much about that story is that she managed to craft a near-perfect gothic novel as the vehicle for her parody. Thus far, it remains my favorite example of a gothic novel, even though the entire book was written as a way to poke fun of the genre.
In Dark Lord of Derkholm, Jones accomplishes the same for classic fantasy, particularly the subgenre of portal fantasy. Here, we have a beautifully crafted fantasy world that basks in its own cliches. But there’s something plaguing this world: Mr. Chesney, a business mogul from a magic-free planet that must be ours, has basically enslaved this lovely world to his Pilgrim Tours, a way for people from our world to experience a fantasy adventure. While the residents of this fantasy world are supposedly reimbursed from their troubles, everyone is miserable and just wants out of the contract binding them to Mr. Chesney. So they select as the Dark Lord for this year the bumbling, affable, country-bumpkin Wizard Derk, with hopes that he’ll fail so miserably that Mr. Chesney will give up and go home. But Chesney has more invested in this world than they know. And Derk has built for himself a wonderfully supportive and capable family, including five griffins, and they are determined to help him succeed. Hilarity ensues.
This was such a funny book. It’s categorized as YA, but it felt more like some weird hybrid of middle grade and adult fantasy because of the tone. I don’t know how to describe it exactly except to say that the protagonists didn’t feel like YA protagonists. I loved watching Jones take cherished cliches and turn them on their heads. The cast of characters she built were incredibly varied, and the vast majority of them were very likable and sympathetic. I especially loved the Derk’s seven children, two human and five griffins. The siblings’ relationships with one another were wonderful. The premise of the book was very tongue-in-cheek, but Jones managed to insert an impressive amount of drama into such a short little book. So much was happening, and there were very few dull moments. (The marching, though. Too much marching.) Also, there were plot twists! Ones that I actually didn’t guess!
After the first couple of chapters, I stopped thinking of this as a parody and started thinking about it as a legitimate fantasy novel in its own right. The only book I had read by Jones prior to this was Howl’s Moving Castle, which is one of my favorites. I’m so happy that I enjoyed this. It wasn’t perfect, but it was still fantastic. I’ll definitely be reading its sequel, Year of the Griffin!