I’ve fallen behind on these, I’m afraid — the posting more than the reading. So, without further ado:
Dark Lord of Derkholm is the playing-out of the ideas treated encyclopedically in Tough Guide to Fantasyland. Derk and his family live in a fantasy world that has, for the last forty years or so, been playing host to Tours from another dimension, sending them hither and yon across the landscape in quest of clues to overthrow the Dark Lord. But the Tours are bankrupting their world; they’re sacking cities, trampling crops, laying waste to the countryside, and forcing everybody to fulfill the expectations (read: conform to the stereotypes) of these otherworldly visitors. The people in charge of setting things up for the Tours want to bring them to an end once and for all, so they appoint a wizard named Derk to play the role of this year’s Dark Lord, and his untrained, fourteen-year-old son Blade to be the Wizard Guide for the final Tour.
This is a fairly sprawling book. At 517 pages in my (mass-market) edition, it may well be her longest; I think only A Sudden Wild Magic comes close to challenging that. Dark Lord reminds me of that one a bit, just in terms of narrative scope. There’s a lot of stuff going on in here, as Querida, the High Chancellor of the wizard’s college, tries to manipulate things into going badly enough to end the Tours, and Derk and Blade (along with the rest of their family) run themselves to the point of ragged and beyond trying to do their jobs right.
I think my favorite stuff in here involves Derk’s family. There are so many neglected and abused children in her books, it’s refreshing to get something like this or the Montanas in The Magicians of Caprona, where there are a lot of people who may squabble, but ultimately love each other quite a lot. I did want to smack Derk sometimes; his tendency to retreat from unpleasant things into fantasies of new creatures reminded me a bit of Erg in “Four Grannies,” though he had much better reason for it. But I like his kids a lot, both the human ones and the griffins.
I suppose I should put the rest of this behind a cut.
I also wanted to smack Derk and Mara both, since I didn’t remember what Querida had done there; I thought that either Derk was screwing things up by not talking to Mara, or that the estrangement was something Querida and Mara had engineered together. I’m much happier knowing that Querida did it on her own . . . for values of “happy” that make me want to kick her instead. I’m ticked at her in general for the approach she took to the entire situation, dumping all this stress on the family without telling them why. The Oracles didn’t say ignorance was necessary, did they? Okay, you can make an argument that it’s better if the people dealing directly with Mr. Chesney aren’t in on the plan, but gawd this kind of dynamic drives me crazy. I am the sort of person who will move heaven and earth to try and make a thing happen, if you’ve given me responsibility for it, and if I find out later that you always intended me to fail? I will not be a happy camper.
I much prefer the stuff that focuses on the kids, at least until the point where Blade has to pick up his tour group. I’m a sucker for seeing the younger generation find out just what they’re capable of — which is, I think, part of why the bit with his tour group is less fun for me; Blade more just gets his head handed to him during that stage, and that makes me cringe in sympathy. I think another part of it, though, is that the tour-group section feels rushed. It might have been interesting to see the story handled in three main strands, one for Derk, one for Blade, and one for the rest of the kids trying to keep it all together. As it stands, though, it feels like the logistics of setting up things for the tours ate so much word-count that the rest of the tale got packed in at the end.
But I do love the way Derk’s family is a family, regardless of species differences. They don’t all get along, but they band together regardless when it’s needed. They also have their individual strengths and weaknesses, without it feeling like Jones tailored them into a tidy set. I also liked the touches about how the world isn’t really like Mr. Chesney wants it to look for the tours, from the female wizards to the “slave” girls in the harem.
I went through most of the novel assuming — just based on defaults, and the way these books are poking fun at the genre of quest fantasy — that the Tours were coming from our world. It was a bit startling at the end to realize that isn’t the case. I seem to remember a reference to “credits,” though I can’t find it now, which makes the other world sound more science-fictional. Regardless, the whole magic-mining thing, or rather the use to which the earth is put, is a clear departure. I would have liked to know more about that end of things, fleshing out the Ledburys and the Pooles and so on.
On the whole, while I enjoy this one, I like Year of the Griffin a bit more. Look for that post soon.