Old Favorite: Dark Lord of Derkholm

October is my favorite month of the year.  Changing leaves, pumpkins, apples, Halloween, Halloween costumes…  When I was a kid, I usually based my Halloween costume on favorite stories and books.  I remember the year I was Dorrie quite well; it took a long time to find two pairs of different colored striped socks and a stuffed black cat for Bink!  With all the Harry Potters out there today, it’s obvious that people still find their inspiration for costumes in books.

But what if finding a costume was more serious that just once a year, for fun?  What if your life depended on it?  In Diana Wynne Jones’ Dark Lord of Derkholm, a whole world’s livelihood depends on the strength of their costumes.  And on their acting abilities.  And athough that might sound like fun, for the brothers and sisters in this tale, it really isn’t.

* * *

Mr. Chesney is the most powerful man in the world.  In several worlds, in fact.  His  business to to bring groups of Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Party Tours from the overdeveloped, over mechanized outer realms to a poor world where magic works.  His hold over the world started forty years ago, and involved blackmail, threats and a demon.

No one  actually likes Mr. Chesney or his Pilgrims.  For one thing, everyone has to pretend to be something they’re not if one of the Pilgrim Parties is in town.  For another, every year, people are forced to play the Dark Lord and his minions.  During that year, the wizard  must act evil, perform evil deeds, and in the end, be defeated by the Pilgrim Parties in a huge, epic battle.  Even worse, the tourists in the Pilgrim Parties don’t actually know that most of the evil henchmen and magicians are farmers, soldiers and normal wizards forced into playing the part under duress.  It’s a dangerous job, and everyone–from farmers to  soldiers to thieves, elves, and dragons– agree that Mr. Chesney must be stopped. Even though that means risking the wrath of a creature who has the power to destroy their world completely.

When Querida, the High Chancellor, and her cohorts in the High Council of Wizards’ University consult with the Oracles, the only help the Oracles can give is that the next Dark Lord must be the first person Querida sees, and the second person will be the Wizard Guide, who leads the Pilgrim Parties around the world and who is supposed to keep all the tours running smoothly.  Even though this mysterious prophecy doesn’t seem very helpful, the Council is sure that both these people will be powerful wizards, able to defeat the evil Mr. Chesney.

But the first person Querida sees is the disorganized and kind Wizard Derk; the second is his 14-year-old son Blade.  And suddenly, Derk, Blade and the whole of Derkholm, from family to servants to  merchants and townspeople are embroiled in a magical mess.  Derk has to reform the family castle into a pit of despair and doom, as well as coordinate armies, magical creatures and other magicians while trying to save his people from too much devastation.  The whole family is dragged into the act. Although no one likes the idea, they’re resigned to a year of no crops, no income, destroyed farms and sacrifices.  And then Derk is hurt in an accident with a dragon.  With his wife Mara’s help, Derk still might be able to pull off the role of the Dark Lord…but what about Blade?

Even though Blade is still a teen, his job of shepherding the Pilgrims around the world and dealing with Mr. Chesney might be even more dangerous. Especially now, when his parents can’t help him.  Luckily, his sister Shona is willing to drop out of Bard college to help him.  And their brothers and sisters: Elda, Lydda, Don, Callette, Finn and Kit have some great ideas too.  So what if they’re griffins, not humans?  But Mr. Chesney is grimly determined that magical creatures, even related ones, must be evil.  His actions toward Don, Callette and the others put them all in terrible danger.  Blade and the others might squabble, but they’re a family.  The siblings become more determined, and their goal is clear. Derk needs help, Blade is in trouble, and what Mr. Chesney doesn’t know won’t hurt him.  But the question is…will it hurt them?

As Blade goes out with the first group of Pilgrims, he’s not sure quite what to expect.  Pretty quickly, he learns that he’s in over his head. The tourists seem to have their own agenda,  it’s not so easy to pretend to be an ancient wizard, even behind a long white beard that apparently, ALL wizards wear, and it’s hard to pretend that  your wounded and kind father is an Evil Overlord of Doom.   Even worse than that though, Mr. Chesney seems to have seen through their deception.  While trying to play their roles, Blade and his brothers and sisters find themselves in danger.  Trying to defeat Mr. Chesney at the same time that they’re protecting their father and their friends from his wrath is no picnic!

Will these unusual siblings prevail?  Or will the implacable Mr. Chesney and his menacing weapon–a demon–win?  Read and find out!

* * *

I just love all of Diana Wynne Jones’ books, and Dark Lord of Derkholm is among my favorites.  If you’ve ever read any kind of fantasy novel with a dangerous quest at the heart of it, you’ll laugh as you read the descriptions of what Derk’s people have to go through to create this illusion.  You’ll never look at fantasy in quite the same way!

The siblings in this story–human and griffin–each have distinct personalities and goals.  They squabble like most brothers and sisters, in spite of the magic.  Best of all, when problems arise, they work together.  Derk and Mara are wonderful, loving parents, happy with their children and each other, and quite in over their heads with their evil taskmaster.  Mr. Chesney is a horrible enemy; cunning, controlling and commercial.

So if you like a splash of humor in your dangerous fantasy world, try Dark Lord of Derkholm.  There’s also a sequel, called The Year of the Griffin.  Both are wonderful!


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