For this week’s Down the Stacks, I’ve dropped in to the Young Adult section of the library to pick out a Diana Wynne Jones novel I enjoyed reading some years back. Dark Lord of Derkholm is a clever send-up of sword-and-sorcery fantasy that both satirizes the cliches and comes together as a great fantasy story in its own right.
Dark Lord of Derkholm takes place in a standard magic-fantasy world, full of dragons, demons, gods, wizards, kings and emperors, elves, and dwarves. This unnamed world regularly plays host to Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties, an interdimensional tour company that offers its customers the chance to live out a real-life fantasy adventure-quest to save the world from the clutches of the Dark Lord. The Pilgrims are guided by wise wizards and have to contend with shadowy avian attacks in the night, the Wild Hunt, bandit raids, possibly being captured by pirates, gladiatorial barbarians, and glamourous Enchantresses, and taking part in great battles between the Forces of Good and Evil while seeking out clues to the Dark Lord’s weakness before confronting him at his citadel.
The problems with this arrangement start with the fact that there is no real Dark Lord, nor are there Dark Elves, murderous religious fanatics, or most of the other nasty stuff the tours promise. The Dark Lord is just one of the male - never female - wizards of the world who essentially drew the short straw that year and has to arrange for all the bad stuff, including the strategic sieging and sacking of certain towns and putting on the appearance that the villages they live near are decaying, festering pits of poverty, to take place according to the tour schedules. Also, dozens of Pilgrim Parties come through at once, staggered by only a day or two, and each group needs to be kept isolated and unaware that any other groups are touring as well, even if multiple groups reach the same destination at the same time. Aside from the planned destruction for the sake of verisimilitude, the sheer number of full-scale battles happening almost daily for weeks on end coupled with the marching of people and horses over any and all forms of passable ground leaves the land and people devastated by the end of the tours. Worst of all, Mr. Chesney is the epitome of bad bosses, making no effort to assist in recovery efforts, not accepting any input or complaints from his “employees,” and going so far as to grossly underpay the actors and even fining them for failing to meet his demands.
After forty years of this, the natives are beyond fed up, but are unable to take direct action to put a stop to Chesney’s business because Mr. Chesney controls a demon that lets him enforce his will on the world. Desparate, a council of the world’s leaders consult two oracles to find out if there’s a way to end the Pilgrim Parties anyway. The advice they get is to appoint the first person they see as Dark Lord and the second person as a Wizard Guide to the last tour group. The two people the leaders next see are Wizard Derk of Derkholm and his son Blade. What follows is a tale of struggle, determination, and desperation as Derk and his family try their darndest to get the tours running properly while everything conspires to tear it all apart.
Derk is a bit of an outlier among the wizard community, as he wants nothing to do with the Wizard University that oversees the magic community of the world. This attitude is mostly due to having a experience with trying to conjure a demon in his school days and a bad relationship with Querida, the lady wizard who runs the University and heads the council. Derk’s magical speciality is illusions and transmogrification, and he has a particular passion for breeding new kinds of animals. Derk often deals with stress by distracting himself with ideas for new creatures, but not to the point where he can’t face and solve his problems. Derkholm is a farm full of carnivorous sheep, sarcastic and sadistic geese, exceptionally friendly cows, one hen the size of an ostrich, cats that might be colored invisible, a couple of flying horses, winged pigs, dogs, and five griffons. The griffons are considered part of Derk’s family, since the wizard mixed some his and his wife’s cells into them along with eagle and lion, for intelligence. The griffons are Kit, a large black specimen who is a natural leader and is developing magic, Caellette, who is about Kit’s size and loves creating artistic trinkets, Lydda, the mid-sized and heavy-set gourmet cook, Don the all-around average, and Elda, the youngest and smallest. Derk’s wife, Mara, is a powerful wizard who can create tiny pocket universes for storing things or adding starry night skies to dresses, among other things. She gets drafted into the role of the Enchantress, which requires her to spend most of her time far from home entertaining Pilgrims, a role that Derk fears will come between the two of them. Derk and Mara have two human children: the aforementioned Blade, a budding wizard who desperately wants to attend the University against his father’s wishes, and a daughter, Shona, who is a talented Bard about to go to college but puts it off to help her family cope with the Dark Lord responsibilities.
Roughly the first half of the book deals with Derk and his kids (griffons included) dealing with problems setting up and running the tours behind the scenes, and then Blade’s tour group finally shows up and we get to see things going wrong from that end. Logistical errors, upset rulers who can’t solve their own problems, unruly animals, and the fact that the bulk of the Dark Lord’s army is made up of about one thousand armed and armored convicts from another world who are bound and determined not to cooperate form the majority of the conflicts Derk has to deal with on a regular basis, but underneath it all is the negative effects the stress is having on his family and the deeper question in Querida’s mind of how having Derk as a Dark Lord is going to put a permanent end to the Pilgrim Parties.
Diana Wynne Jones can tell a good story, but her writing style bugs me in ways I can’t quite pin down. The pacing of Dark Lord of Derkholm never stalls out; descriptions never drag out and none of the characters are prone to extensive introspection at the expense of doing what needs to be done. Plot twists and withheld information are both handled with such care that the reader is never more frustrated or lost than the characters themselves. The language is clear enough for a young adult audience to comprehend without great effort. Derk’s family feels like it genuinely has seven teens and pre-teens in it, all prone to picking on one another yet immediately banding together against outside threats. Yet, something about the way the author puts words together makes everything feel just a little too flat, or that it’s missing just that little extra spice to make the world feel real. It’s like a perfectly cooked ham without a honey-glaze: satisfying, but not as great as it could be. We’re given a whole world to experience, full of different cultures and a cast of characters drawn together by a mutual struggle with machinations just below the surface to gum up the works, and yet we get barely a glimpse into things that everyone takes for granted and thus don’t bother to explore for our benefit. For someone, like myself, who places great value on worldbuilding and lore beyond the main plot, a book like Dark Lord of Derkholm feels bare-boned.Despite my disappointment in the lack of worldbuilding, I do recommend Dark Lord of Derkholm. It does its job as a Young Adult fantasy novel, and going through and identifying all the sword-and-sorcery tropes and cliches the book employs and mocks can be a fun method of engaged reading.