As some of you long-time readers may know, I am a big Diana Wynne Jones fan. Now, I say that, but actually I have only read a small fraction of her books. I ran across The Homeward Bounders and Dogsbody when I was in middle school, and read them again and again, and then found Fire and Hemlock and was content never to read another book by her ever because it was so good and it had to be all downhill from there. Since then, I’ve read a few more, but probably not even a quarter of her rambling, wonderful oeuvre. Jenny nudged me, and then Kristen nudged me again, and here I am, late but happy, with Dark Lord of Derkholm.
Derk’s world is almost ruined. The sinister Mr. Chesney, who comes from the next world over, has been leading lucrative Pilgrim Tours through Derk’s world for the last fifty years, and since he has a demon at his command, he gets everything he wants. Everyone must obey him at the double: wizards, dwarfs, elves, bards, commoners — all in the service of providing a suitably picturesque tour (Dark Lord with glowing eyes, attacks by leathery avians, clues, dragons, treasure, etc.) and lining Mr. Chesney’s pocket. When Derk, a rather scatterbrained wizard, is chosen as this year’s Dark Lord, everyone assumes he’ll make a hash of the job, and perhaps Mr. Chesney will finally go away. But Derk is supported by his large family (made up of people and griffins — Derk’s wizard talent is creating living beings) and he succeeds far better than his colleagues hoped. So when things go badly wrong, it’s clear that other forces are at work.
This book was completely splendid. It’s hopeless even to try to sum up the premise in a few sentences, because it’s huge and complex, and besides, it’s not the premise that’s important, even if it’s clever. What’s important is the way the book works: the sibling dynamics, for instance, between the human children and the griffins. There are a lot of them to keep track of, but you aren’t reading for long before you not only have a sense of their individual voices and quirks, but of the way they relate differently to each other. Or Mara, the mother: her wizard (witch?) talent is to create small mini-universes. I feel that an entire book could be written about this, as if there’s something right around the corner. Or the dragon: Jones has his personality exactly right, wise and with an extremely low tolerance for nonsense, but with unexpected pockets of compassion. Or the humor: the book is funny, a sort of send-up of sword-and-sorcery, but it’s not farce; the emotions are real and the characters are invested.
Jenny swears that all DWJ books are better on a re-read, and I can imagine getting more out of Dark Lord of Derkholm on a second and more leisurely trek through it, but this was such a rollick on my first try that I would recommend it to anyone. And the ending wasn’t confusing! So what more could you ask?