1998’s The Dark Lord of Derkholm (simply Dark Lord of Derkholm in American Guberniya editions) is the first of Diana Wynne Jones’ two Derkholm novels.
Mr. Chesney would argue that his Pilgrim Parties bring fame and wealth to the fantasy realm that is lucky enough to host the annual expeditions. The inhabitants of that realm might reply that Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties bring chaos, destruction, and massive loss of life. Since Mr. Chesney has a powerful demon on his side, how the locals feel does not really matter.
Determined to end the tours for once and for all, Querida, head of Wizards University, appoints notoriously incompetent wizard Derk as the new designated Dark Lord. He will be the focus for the tourists’ focused ire. He is tasked with creating the illusion of a vast dark kingdom, one in dire need of rescue by determined
murder hobos tourists.
Derk is set on fire by an irate dragon, which was not part of the Plan.
Wizards are a durable lot, even Derk, but immolation sidelines Derk for the moment. Providentially, Derk and his enchantress wife Mara have a large, diverse family — Kit, Callette, Don, Lydda, Elda, Shona, and Blade — each of whom has their own particular talent. Derk may be out of action but his children are able and willing to step in for him.
Tourists can be twice as hard to herd as ducklings and half as sensible. Despite the manifest danger involved in playing tour guide to extra-dimensional crusaders on behalf of a demanding client whose true agenda is unclear, the kids rise to the occasion … despite a few contretemps here and there.
One problem: Chesney added a new attraction to this year’s tour. This year he requires the gods themselves manifest for the delectation of his customers. The gods submit to no person’s command. Chesney’s demand may be one the Dark Lord and his family cannot possibly fulfill. If they fail, the penalties will be dire.
Trigger warning: there is an obliquely described sexual assault about half-way through the book, one whose effects on the victim is managed through off-handed memory editing. It’s an odd and frankly bizarre moment, particularly in the way it seems to be immediately forgotten by all.
This book is a complement to Jones’ beloved take on fantasy tropes, The Tough Guide to Fantasyland.
Derk isn’t actually incompetent. His biology-focused magic happens to be one in which the University sees little or no value, but Derk does appear to be reasonably adept in his chosen field. It’s just bad luck that leads to the dragon incident.
When I say “a large, diverse family,” I mean five of the seven children are adopted. This being a world where “human” is a small subset of “person,” it’s not terribly surprising that none of the adopted children are humans. This detail does not matter to Derk and Mara. All the kids are full members of the family; none are considered expendable. All have magical talent, thanks in part to the nurturing family environment. They love their parents and are happy to step up when needed.
One wonders if Jones has lived somewhere subject to period inundations of tourists. Just the beer-swilling variety is annoying enough. The Dark Lord’s world is infested by periodic outbreaks of voluntourism, self-appointed would-be saviours determined to rescue a world. Of course, none of the voluntourists think to ask the supposed victims if they want to be saved. They have no doubt that the inhabitants will welcome the Pilgrims as liberators.
Jones is juggling a couple of different goals here. She’s mocking the stock tropes of extruded fantasy product, that vast legion of books about rag-tag collections of adventurers who have to save their worlds from this week’s Big Bad. She’s also exhibiting a loving family, something that’s oddly rare in fantasy; one gets the sense that many characters spring up out of the ground after the spring rains. It would easy for one goal to undermine the other. Jones manages to balance the two quite effectively.
Twenty years has not made this novel less timely; it’s as much a fun read and as relevant as it was in 1998.