The central premise of Dark Lord of Derkholm seems like such a natural hook on which to hang a comic fantasy that I’m surprised it hasn’t been done to death: there’s a big market for people who want to play at being a Frodo-style hero, triumphing over fearsome evil against long odds, so generic fantasylands hire themselves out for tours that provide mock heroic experiences.
Diana Wynne Jones is no run-of-the-mill comic fantasist, however, and while Dark Lord of Derkholm pokes some gentle fun at Lord of the Rings and its endless imitators, there’s much more going on here than parodying the standard episodic heroic fantasy. Jones’ characters are emotionally complex and we meet them in medias res with a lifetime’s worth of experiencing — notably including assorted rivalries and resentments — under their belts. Rather than let the reader sketch in the backdrop of his or her favorite fantasy novel, Jones provides a complex milieu that has its own unique personality, despite nods to some of the familiar genre tropes.
I enjoyed it quite a bit, but arguably there’s a little too much going on for a single volume. Post-Tolkein fantasies are often criticized for being padded with excess verbiage (after all, the gods of marketing decreed that they must all be trilogies at minimum). In contrast, Dark Lord of Derkholm often feels compressed, with perhaps a little too much elided. The book might have been stronger if Jones had juggled fewer balls — dragons & elves & dwarves & demons & griffins & horse-lords, oh my! And that’s just the mise en scène, the actual story involves court intrigue & rebellious adolescents with image issues & derring-do & temple intrigue & longtime married couples growing apart & parallel universes & … well, you get the idea.
I can’t decide whether Dark Lord of Derkholm would have been strongest cut to a single shorter volume, or expanded into two (I’m not sure there’s a natural breaking point, for one thing). Either way, I think it’s ill served by its title, which makes it sound much sillier than it is. I’d recommend it without hesitation to those who are already fans of Jones, but I think I’d still steer newcomers to Hexwood, or perhaps Howl’s Moving Castle.
Needs More Demons? Absolutely not.
One thought on “Dianna Wynne Jones: Dark Lord of Derkholm”
I’d say there are three natural breaking points, evenly spaced: nine chapters each. Also, the Dark Lord of the title is not who you might think it is.