Goodreads: The Dark Lord of Derkholm
Series: Derkholm #1
Every year Mr. Chesney’s Pilgrim Parties come from another world wreaking havoc as the wizards and villagers have to pretend that they are ruled by a Dark Lord and that the Pilgrims can fight battles to defeat him. But constant pillaging and fighting means food is scarce, birth rates are down, and everyone is overworked. Now the Oracle has prophesied that if Derk is appointed Dark Lord, the tours will end for good. But is Derk competent enough to defeat Mr. Chesney and his demon?
Diana Wynne Jones takes all the traditional elements of fantasy and upends them, creating a world where no Dark Lord rules and the kings and wizards do not fight each other, because they are all too tired planning for the Pilgrim Parties that tour through their lands each year. One wizard is appointed Dark Lord and must act the part for six months, tearing down villages, scorching crops, and bespelling soldiers to fight for him. Sometimes people really die. Sometimes people are sent on tours specifically so they might. But, generally speaking, all of it is a sham, a show put on for tourists from another universe who don’t understand how their tours are hurting the people they exploit. Talk about a great concept for a fantasy novel!
This concept would have been sufficient for me, since it was pretty intriguing to see the economic and human repercussions of the tours. The Dark Lord has to ruin perfectly good houses to make it seem like he mistreats his people. Towns have to allow the ransacking of their homes and the plundering of their harvests. Slave girls have to be hired because tourists are really into that kind of exploitation, I suppose to no one’s surprise. And meanwhile the villagers really do have nothing to eat because the crops are destroyed each year. The dragons don’t have enough gold and birth rates are down. And everyone feels too exhausted to fight back.
But then the book starts complicating things. Illegal transactions are occurring and magic is disappearing, etc. It felt like the story was trying to encompass too much by the end, leading to a looser and almost choppy narrative as the book tried to wrap up. Gladiators! Mines! Thieves! New revelations about tons of old characters! In this case, less would have been more. Focus on the Pilgrim Tours and how you plan to end them, leave the rest for the sequel.
I also have to note that the depictions in this book aren’t really up to modern standards of sensitive representation. The slave girls, for example, are found in the Emirates. It’s not clear if this is because the tourists themselves just expect slaves in a place called the Emirates, since the Emirates don’t actually have slaves. But it’s still a jarring moment, one that seems to try to exoticize a region we might associate with our own Middle East. And though the story touches a little on how the “slave” girls feel exploited, the book does not fully explore this problem the way it might have.
All things considered, however, the book is a fun play on standard fantasy tropes and fans of the genre are sure to enjoy it.