Friday, April 18, 2014

Review: "Dark Lord of Derkholm" by Diana Wynne Jones

Mr. Chesney's Pilgrim Tours are a dream come true for the diehard fantasy fan. Now you, too, can go on a thrilling adventure in a magical world, battle monstrous hordes, fulfill prophecies, find treasure, and--of course--overthrow the Dark Lord himself. Book your ticket today!

The Tours are viewed with less delight by inhabitants of the world in question, which is ravaged on a yearly basis by hordes of tourists wielding swords and cameras.

This year, the responsibility of playing the Dark Lord falls to the eccentric and ingenuous Wizard Derk. According to Mr. Chesney's guidebook, Derk's farmhouse must become a forbidding Dark Citadel; his wife Mara, the requisite seductive Dark Enchantress; his children, guides for the Tours. Derk himself will be killed, twice a day, by tours of Pilgrims reaching the end of their tightly scheduled adventures.

The life of a Dark Lord isn't an easy one. Derk is singed by dragons, haunted by blue demons, fined by auditors, all while stamping out a revolution he'd really rather join. Meanwhile, his marriage slowly crumbles, taking with it Derk's reason for cooperating with Mr. Chesney's demands.

  3 out of 5 stars
In case you haven't guessed, dear reader, Dark Lord of Derkholm is a parody.

Mythopoeic-Award-winning author Diana Wynne Jones has no trouble crafting a lively adventure story with the complexities of family at its core--but she doesn't make the mistake of trying to make this story too serious. The book is a lovingly-meant raspberry in the direction of hackneyed fantasy cliches.

Viewing the cliches through the lens of the fantasy world "hosting" the wannabe adventurers (rather than that of the adventurers themselves) keeps the story fresh, even when rehashing overused tropes familiar to any Dungeons & Dragons player. The seers foretell prescripted events. The Pilgrim Tours regard bards as expendable--so the Bardic College refuses to participate, unless the safety of their students can be guaranteed.The only inhabitants of the tourist-invaded land are innkeepers and tavern-owners, because no matter what else happens, a party of adventurers must have their booze.

Jones seasons her comedy with a few somber details to prevent it from becoming farcical. Disturbing details slowly accumulate about the Pilgrim Parties. Certain tourists, marked "expendable," are slated to be (heroically) killed, their families having paid handsomely to be rid of them. The Armies of the Dark Lord are dangerous convicts shipped in from other worlds, drugged into tractability so that the Pilgrims can dispatch faceless hordes without a qualm.

Jones missteps when she has the rebelling convicts attack Derk's sixteen-year-old daughter, Shona. Sexual assault is too heavy a subject for the otherwise romping tone of the book to support. Jones seems to realize this, because she handwaves it by having Shona's memory be magically suppressed so that "it seems a long time ago, somehow." Then the plot can keep moving without dealing with the buzzkill of a teenaged rape victim.

No, Shona's real trauma is reserved for her expulsion from the Bardic College. That is when Jones grants Shona the right to be desolated, to cry and scream and go into a catatonic stupor of grief. It's at this point that her brother--who witnessed the actual assault earlier--states that he has "never seen anyone so horribly unhappy."

Thaaaaat's the part where I wrinkle up my face and pull back from the page.

But the book is largely comical and meant to be that way.
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 [the Pilgrim's tour guide] 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.
From there he heard the woman burst into tears. "That's horrible!" she wept. "Whatever it was, it was entitled to life, just like we are!"
"It will come back to life soon enough," [the guide] said truthfully.
Dark Lord of Derkholm is a solidly average book across the board, but it makes for an enjoyable read--a snack for the imagination.  Its problematic elements are largely self-conscious, mirroring the trends of formulaic fantasy novels. It failed to make enough of an impression on me to warrant picking up the sequel, but I give Dark Lord of Derkholm itself my recommendation to other fantasy fans.

Complexity of Writing: 3/5
Quality of Writing: 3/5
Strength of Characterization: 3/5
Logic of Plot Development: /5
Evocation of Setting: 2/5
Effectiveness of Pacing: 3/5
Resolution of Conflict: 3/5
Emotional Engagement: 3/5
Mental Engagement: 3/5
Bechdel Test: pass?
Diverse Cast:  pass?
Content Warning: self-aware racism, sexual assault, animal deaths, character deaths

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