Title: Dark Lord of Derkholm
Author: Diana Wynne Jones
Series/Standalone: Originally a standalone, but was followed up by Year of the Griffin
First Published: 1998
Edition Reviewed: 1998
Awards: 1999 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Children’s Literature
Price: Used prices on Amazon Market Place start from £1.49 at time of posting
For years Mr Chesney’s tours have dominated an entire world of wizardry and magic. And they’re fed up. Mr Chesney makes his money from ferrying ‘Pilgrim Parties’ from his more mundane world into a world of magic, via portals created by the demon he keeps in his pocket. The Pilgrims are guided through a series of staged adventures, each party led by its own wizard guide (who must grow a regulation beard and carry a regulation staff). They are to be attacked by bandits, set upon by leathery avians, witness the Dark Lord’s Wild Hunt, get caught up in a battle between the forces of Good and the Dark Lord’s army, collect various clues to the Dark Lord’s weakness, and be temporarily ensnared by a seductive enchantress, before finally defeating the Dark Lord and going home. That is, unless they have been marked down as ‘expendable’.
The different kingdoms of this magical realm take turns hosting the Pilgrims, and the various wizards take turns as the year’s ‘Dark Lord’. They are paid for their part in the action, but the payment does little to compensate the loss of life and the destruction to homes, farms, and countryside. Pretty much everyone has had enough, but it’s not clear what they can do. They’ve signed a contract with Mr Chesney, a contract that will undoubtedly be re-inforced by the demon in his pocket.
So: they turn to the oracles for help. The White Oracle instructs them to appoint a wizard called Derk as this year’s Dark Lord, the Black Oracle advises that they make Derk’s teenage son, Blade, wizard guide to the last Pilgrim Party of the year. Querrida, High Chancellor of the University, is greatly puzzled by this, as she perceives Derk to be a very poor sort of wizard – he did not excel academically. Derk’s skills tend more towards the organic. He likes creating new creatures, and in addition to his two human children he has three griffins children as well (formed of DNA from not only lions and eagles, but him and his wife, too); not to mention the menagerie of other animals, all of whom adore him (saving a few sarcastic geese).
Derk and his family rise surprisingly effectively to the occasion, and even make valiant efforts after an unfortunate incident with a dragon that leaves Derk himself incapacitated. However, as the tours progress, things spiral increasingly out of control, and it is a genuine mystery how things will ever turn out alright in the end.
So, is it any good?
Yes, I think so. But it is an odd sort of book. It’s naturally engaging and imaginative as all Diana Wynne Jones books are. It is satisfyingly fantastical, whilst also displaying her usual skill in parodying certain elements of the genre. It’s certainly an interesting premise! However, there was an odd see-saw between things that were humourous and things that ought to have been outright distressing.
The author makes no bones about the fact that the tours are dangerous and frequently deadly, not only to the people of her world, but the Pilgrims themselves. ‘Expendable’ Pilgrims are dispatched in a manner that seems quite shockingly brutal, especially for a children’s book. Not that bad actions or brutal actions can’t happen in children’s books, but often supposedly ‘good’ characters (characters with which we are not only supposed to identify, but sympathise) seem to feel barely a twinge at carrying out murder, including senseless killing on a frankly massive scale (as in the battle between the forces of ‘Good’ and ‘Evil’ – who are really all on the same side). Blade and Don (one of Derk’s griffin children) show some qualms about this, and there is a gesture at some kind of interesting discussion about the way excitement and horror might both go hand in hand with war, but it is so perfunctory that it really threw me out of the story. On the other end of the scale, the scenes of genuine grief over particular tragedies towards the end of the book are so powerful and real as to jar forcefully with the earlier tone of light-hearted parody.
All of which leads me to the conclusion mentioned above: this is not a bad book – it’s intensely imaginative and wittily observed – but it’s a deeply puzzling book. It’s too brutal in some places for parody, and far too light-hearted in others to really do justice to the tragedies contained within. I don’t know what to make of it, and I don’t know what to make of my feelings about it.
Any Diana Wynne Jones fan will enjoy Dark Lord of Derkholm. It is not the tour de force of Hexwood or Howl’s Moving Castle, but it’s certainly not her worst work, either, and, even at her worst, Diana Wynne Jones is never less than entertaining. Fans of fantasy and parody of fantasy will also enjoy it, and the fact that it is odd is not in itself bad. There’s a puzzle for the reader, here, and sometimes it can be good to wrestle a thing like this out.