Dark Lord of Derkholm
by Diana Wynne Jones
Anyone who enjoys reading thick, meaty Harry Potter
books, like The Goblet of Fire
or The Order of the Phoenix
, should be gratified to know that Diana Wynne Jones has also written a pair of thick, meaty fantasy stories. The first and longer of the two is Dark Lord of Derkholm
, and the sequel is Year of the Griffin
The first story puts a new twist on the classic fantasy adventure. You know, the kind of story where people travel on horse and foot; are attacked by bandits, pirates, winged monsters, ghostly huntsmen, dark elves, fanatical priests, and enemy armies; are put under the spell of a glamorous enchantress; have gods and demons appear to them; learn clues for how to complete their quest from dragons; and finally confront, and defeat, a terrible Dark Lord.
Now suppose that this whole fantasy adventure is a sham put on for vacationing tourists from another world (a world pretty much like ours), where a very stern businessman named Mr. Chesney has somehow got this whole alternate-world of wizards, dragons, priests, bards, and so on, under his thumb. He ruthlessly exploits them and forces them to host these tours, at a great cost in lives, crops, and natural resources, which he very stingily repays, after levying dreadful fines whenever something goes wrong.
Meanwhile, the same little, neat-as-a-pin, smartly dressed, bald man-seemingly the farthest thing from a hideous villain-is also making money on the side selling sham insurance policies to the tourists (Pilgrim Parties, he calls them), accepting blood money to rub out certain "expendable" tourists, taking tribute from the dwarves. AND, when the full extent of his perfidy is finally revealed, Mr. Chesney is also secretly stealing the magic which belongs to the fabric of this world, to use as fuel in his own world.
Basically, the real dark lord in this story is the natty little man in a pin-striped suit. Not exactly according to Fantasy convention, eh?
A different wizard is chosen each year (against his will) to play the role of the Dark Lord. No one wants to do it. No one wants to play any of the roles in this vast, deadly, appalling role-play game. But because of the mysterious power Mr. Chesney has over their world, no one even thinks about trying to put a stop to it. Until now.
Gathered in secrecy, a small group of world leaders decide to plan how to save their world from ecological and sociological disaster: to fend off Mr. Chesney and his Pilgrims. The inner circle goes to inquire of the White Oracle and the Black Oracle, as to what must be done. The White Oracle tells them to make the first person they see after coming out of the temple the Dark Lord for the coming season. The Black Oracle tells them to make the second person they see the wizard guide for the last of the season's 126 tours. Immediately on leaving the Black Oracle, they meet a father and son coming out of the White Oracle-Wizard Derk of Derkholm and his small-for-his-age, 14-year-old son Blade.
So that's settled, then. The year's Dark Lord is a not-very-highly-regarded wizard, who never did very well at the Wizard University and hasn't participated much in the magical community. Their last tour guide is to be a boy with some raw magical talent, but whose father is fighting to keep him from going to the University he hated so much.
Derk is infuriated to be chosen as Dark Lord. No one hates the tours more than he; he considers them a blight on his world and a disgrace to the wizard magic that has kowtowed to them his whole life. He hated the university because the magical establishment frowned on research and innovation, and instead emphasized practical magic that would come in useful for the tours.
Derk specializes in experimental bio-magic. He excels in magically engineering new creatures. He has flying pigs, flying and talking horses, super-intelligent geese, invisible cats, carnivorous sheep, miniature flying monkeys, intelligent dogs (born with wings that fall off when they are weaned), and friendly cows (bred for stupidity, because he originally wanted them as food for the other animals). He also has a green thumb, growing roasted-on-the-bush coffee beans, man-eating orchids, vinyl plants, bread plants, and heaven knows what else.
But the pride of his collection are five griffins-basically, giant eagles that have the hindquarters of lions and the intelligence of humans-whom he and his wife, Wizard Mara, consider to be their own children every bit as much as their two human children, Blade and the beautiful bard Shona. The griffins are warlike Kit, artistic Callette, gentle Don, gourmet-chef Lydda, and talkative Elda, the baby of the family.
So Derk, who specializes in life magic and isn't very powerful in conventional magical ways, is supposed to be the Dark Lord while Mara, who specializes in miniature universes, is supposed to be the Enchantress. You see the problem?
Derk has a matter of weeks to arrange loads of dark-side stuff for the tours, which he's ever so unwilling to do. Making matters worse, the people who went to the Oracles, including high wizard Querida, expect him to fail because of his limited powers; so thinking that he's going to end the tours by botching everything, they help things along by sabotaging him at every turn. Derk has to frantically rush all over the place, be umpteen places at once, keep zillions of different moving parts well oiled and in their proper place, AND deal with sabotage from within and Mr. Chesney's unreasonable demands from without.
Derk's army is made up of other-world criminals who are supposed to be under a spell to control their violent natures, but who will still rape, rob, and murder you as soon as look at you. Plus he is distracted by thinking that Mara is leaving him. With all this going on and only days to go before the tours begin, Derk tops it all off by being burned nearly to death by an ancient dragon that has just awoken from a 300-year slumber and is angry because it doesn't understand what's going on.
So while Derk is recovering from his burns, the children take charge and the whole Dark Lord business becomes a family affair. The main part of this rather thick novel, then, is how Derk and his family work together to try to keep the tours, which they hate passionately, going smoothly...even though more and more things go wrong all the time. As I've said, people are sabotaging the tour thinking that they're helping Derk end the tours (and that includes his most trusted assistant). Meanwhile Derk's family is trying to keep the tours on track, thinking that if they fail, they personally and their world generally will be ruined.
But what no one reckoned on, was the double traitor in their midst, a betrayal so foul and dastardly that it completely disorganizes the pilgrim party Blade is supposed to guide, shatters Derk's family into heartbroken splinters, and results in the Dark Lord of the year sealing himself inside his estate (Derkholm) with his surviving children, refusing to take part in the tours and allowing a crowd of stranded pilgrims to gather outside his gates. This leads to a final and dreadful confrontation between the almost grief-maddened Derk, the unscrupulous Querida, a wrathful demon, an all-powerful god, an ancient dragon-king, the double traitor, an "expendable" pilgrim who has managed to survive, a thief lord, an elf prince, some very disgruntled tourists, and Mr. Chesney himself. Not to mention dwarves, griffins, wizards, kings, and young couples in love.
It's a very exciting novel, interesting also for the way it portrays relationships in a very complex family. It boasts some intensely gripping scenes, including a breathlessly scary one in which two brothers are forced to face each other as opponents in a gladiatorial contest to the death, knowing that if they don't fight they will both be killed. The romance in these two novels is of the unreal Shakespearean variety, where two young people lock eyes and fall in love at first sight. But otherwise it is a satisfying story, whose wry look at fantasy-adventure is full of humor, and whose many richly colored threads come together in a marvelous tapestry.
Recommended Age: 14+
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