The Dark Lord of Derkholm is a 1998 young adult fantasy novel by author Diana Wynne Jones. Once a year, a magical fantasy land receives guests from another world. These guests, whom visit as Pilgrim Parties under the organization of a ruthless businessman named Mr. Chesney, embark upon this journey to experience a real-life fantasy adventure, complete with dragons, battles between the forces of good and evil, and even a Dark Lord to vanquish at the end of their hard-fought quest. However, after years of suffering the devastating consequences, the people of this fantasy land have had enough. Maybe, if they completely sabotage this year’s tours, nobody will ever want to visit again. To do so, they’ll have to appoint the worst wizard for the job of Dark Lord. Unfortunately for Derk and his family, that’s him.
I first picked up this book several years ago after learning that Jones was a much more prolific author than I had realized, making me determined to read something of hers that I’d never heard of before. This novel, the first in a duo, immediately caught my attention because I’m not sure I’ve ever beheld a fantasy story like this before. In a world utterly steeped in magic, populated by fae folk, werewolves, dragons, griffins, wizards, gods, and demons, where adept magic users can bend reality at will and do the most wondrous things, all must band together to face a foe unlike any they have had to before: Capitalism.
When I first started reading this book, I was enamoured with the fact that I truly had no sense of what direction the story might take me in. At every turn, it seemed to surprise me and revel in its own weirdness. Derk, for example, has approximately seven children. Only two of them are human, however, and the other five are griffins that he created with magic using, in part, organic materials from him and his wife. These beasts talk and act like people the entire book.
In the early phases of the story, Jones spends a lot of valuable time establishing the book’s myriad of characters and building up the world. With a cast pretty much entirely familiar with their magical world, I was surprised with how seamlessly Jones was able to weave world-building details into the narrative. I suppose it helped that Derk has the Herculean task of managing several flesh and blood role-playing campaigns, having him coordinate pretty much all the peoples of his world to try and make it work, but the end result was something that felt very natural and lived in that the book didn’t quite have the luxury of easing the reader in to.
Though I was captivated early on by the novel’s mystique, a problem with the whole book slowly became apparent to me before too long. Namely, it doesn’t really have a solid plot to speak of, only a major through-line related to dealing with the Pilgrim Parties and a series of situations for the characters we follow. This was not without merit, but it resulted in some parts of the book dragging and feeling a little directionless to me.
The most glaring was when Derk’s children must march his army of evil soldiers (populated by criminals from the non-fantasy world) in his stead, an endeavour that takes them a grueling amount of time, as these men actively don’t want to be there and hate their captors. It was a good demonstration of the exploitation at play for many parties involved in making these campaigns work, and it did tie in to some important turning points in the story later on, but it just seemed to go on forever, making me impatient for developments with a little more substance.
Once it did end, the book seemed to me to just move on to more situations where the characters struggle with keeping plates spinning, with a common thread related to how exploitative this whole arrangement really is. Again, this did have value, and by no means did the reading experience feel like a waste of time, especially as some developments held more intrigue, but I couldn’t help wishing for a more focused plot, a more centralized perspective. That being said, it was surprising just how dark this book really gets, both in the concepts it explores and certain events, especially considering how it seems to be marketed to children. It would seem Jones gives her reading audience a lot of credit, which is to be lauded.
This book as a “series of situations” with a common theme probably would have retained a lot of my esteem had the ending not been surprisingly flat. In a book that has so much go wrong for the characters all of the time—in part because it is just so much to try and coordinate but also because agents are actively trying to sabotage everything—everything wrapped up far too neatly at the end. In short order, a slew of characters are revealed to be influential and more powerful than anybody realized, to an almost comical degree, and they manage to resolve things far too neatly for how much of a chaotic mess events had been leading up to that.
I really liked Dark Lord of Derkholm, but it had the potential to make me really love it and fell a little short of that. Nevertheless, Jones’s abilities as a world builder are on full display, and her ability to oscillate between humorous and darker tones kept the reading experience pleasurable even at the lowest points. It’s a world I’m more than eager to return too, which has me looking forward to reading the sequel sooner rather than later.
My Rating: 3.5 out of 5