What does it feel like to have your world devastated by offworld tourists? Not good. Querida, High Chancellor of Wizards’ University, has received more than one million letters from wizards, farmers, soldiers, elves, dragons, and kings, all begging her to put a stop to Mr. Chesney’s pilgrim Parties. Querida takes a small group to consult the Oracles about getting rid of Mr. Chesney for good. The first person you see, they are told, must be this year’s Dark Lord, and the second person must be the Wizard Guide. The first two people they see are Wizard Derk and his son Blade. What does it feel like to suddenly be Dark Lord? Dreadful. Wizard Derk, who has spent much of his life peacefully breeding griffin, winged horses, flying pigs, invisible cats, and intelligent geese, is horrified to find he has to rebuild his house as an evil fortress and knock down a nearby village. And what does it feel like when most of your brothers and sisters are griffins? Interesting. Blade and Shona, Derk’s human children, share their home with five griffins. When Derk has an accident with a dragon, all his children, human and griffin, are forced to do the Dark Lord’s work for their father. Things do not go well. And what does it feel like to be a Wizard Guide to a Pilgrim Party? Frantic. When Blade at last gets to conduct his party of offworld tourists around the continent, he is almost glad that Shona decides to come, too. Even so, things go from bad to worse, until it seems unlikely that even Querida can help.
Another of my favorite Diana Wynne Jones’s novels, Dark Lord of Derkholm is Jones’s proverbial wink-and-nudge at common fantasy tropes. It’s set in the world that she describes in her Tough Guide to Fantasyland, where she basically deconstructs fantasy tropes from the “tourist’s” point of view, and in Dark Lord, she sets it from Fantasyland’s world’s point of view and further deconstructs fantasy tropes. Furthermore, Dark Lord is almost like looking at fantasy tropes from a writer’s point of view, having to come up with new and improved things every time yet still trying to make them quintessentially the same. It’s a fabulously meta book.
Dark Lord, besides its deconstruction and almost satirical look at fantasy, also is pure Jones through and through—a complex plot, where many things don’t fall together until the very end, humor (although not as prevalent as in other books, or maybe just more subtle), and a fascinating world with memorable characters.
The book is certainly one of Jones’s better (and more memorable) novels, but it’s not her best. The plot rambles on in the middle and some things really do come out of left field at the end, even for Jones. And the multiple viewpoints means that there’s a lot of jumping around (even in time!) and it can be confusing at times to remember where each person’s narrative is and at what point in the story. Luckily, the charm of Dark Lord lies in its deconstruction of fantasy, not in its mechanics.
Recommended Age Range: 12+
Warnings: Violence, death, one scene with the Dark Lord’s army and Shona that would probably fly over a younger reader’s head but for an older one is legitimately terrifying and awful.
Genre: Fantasy, Middle Grade
The next part was truly difficult. Try as he might, Derk could not get the Pilgrims even to attempt to kill him. He bellowed with sinister laughter; he loomed over them uttering threats; he adopted a toneless, chilling voice and explained that he was about to toss each of them into this bottomless pit flaming with balefire. This pit. Here. Then he went and stood invitingly beside the trench. But they simply stood and stared at him. It was not for nearly a quarter of an hour, until Finn managed to cannon into the woman who happened to be in front, causing her to stumble against Derk with a scream, that Derk was able to consider the deed done. In the greatest relief he threw up his arms and toppled sideways into his trench.
Dark Lord of Derkholm is a fascinating, funny, almost satirical look at fantasy tropes, taken from another book of Jones’s, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. If you’re familiar with fantasy, you’ll likely find yourself giggling with glee over what Jones does—and forgiving the book its rambling middle and sudden plot reveals.