The Wizard Derk was a simple man who wished for nothing but to putter around his gardens and magically breed interesting creatures. Unfortunately, in The Dark Lord of Derkholm By Diana Wynne Jones, Derk is selected and that year’s Dark Lord for the tours that pass through and has to scramble to perform a job that he is not only ill-suited to perform, but which was purposefully given to him in the hopes that he would be the last Dark Lord. Not only does Derk need to worry about all the “Pilgrim Parties” (vacationers from a different world who have paid to be the heroes in an adventure story) passing through on their vacations, but he has to worry about the leaders of his world who have set him up for every kind of failure they can imagine and a few they never expected.
The Dark Lord of Derkholm is a wonderful fantasy book that does a great job of satirizing fantasy. The story illustrates how silly (and how devastating) some of the typical fantasy tropes can be for the people experiencing them. World leaders complain of destroyed countrysides, ruined crops, obliterated towns, slain citizens, and pillaged homes, all while some man from the same world as the Pilgrim Parties, referred to only as “Mr. Chesney,” reaps profits that put the collected salaries of the people actually doing the work to shame. As a result of the damages, each person hosting a part of the events spends more than they earn and are in the end stages of slow economic decay. If that wasn’t enough, most of the damage comes from large groups of condemned criminals who are brought into their world to act the part of the Dark Lord’s Army, some of whom wind up escaping their prison camps in order to pillage the countryside for real, killing and burning as they go.
Each of the characters who takes part in the story, aside from the one who came up with the idea of ending the Pilgrim Parties instead of just getting more money from Mr Chesney, is a wonderful and complex person who still plays into stereotypes in ways that serve to better accentuate their characters rather than limit it. The one exception, Querida, the head of the Wizards, is an enormously powerful and clever old woman who feels one-dimensional because all she does is come up with a plan. That’s it. Her plan is to ask the oracles how to end the Pilgrim Parties and then throw as many wrenches into the works as possible. She comes up with ideas and then has other people actually figure out how to make it happen, but winds up getting all the credit for things working out. Not only that, but she expresses no concern when Wizard Derk is devastated by the results of the Pilgrim Parties, callously tries to separate him from his wife, Mara (magically, since Derk and Mara love each other and their children too much to separate), and tries to kidnap or trick most of Derk and Mara’s children. She’s awful and seems to be just as callous as Mr. Chesney.
Give the clever ways the other characters are written, how human and real they feel, with personalities distinct from each other and personal goals they pursue in entirely Human ways even as they’re tasked with seeing to the Pilgrim Parties, I can only conclude Diana Wynne Jones wrote Querida that way on purpose. There are a lot of powerful characters in this book, from Elven lords who can just wander into any part of the world they like to ancient dragons who can warp reality with the merest hint of their power, but most of them fall into one of two categories: those who respect people and those who do not. Even in Derk’s world, the ultimate victim of Mr. Chesney’s machinations, people with power but no respect for individuals without it are just as bad as Mr. Chesney and, though it is never confirmed, you get a sense that those sort of people are the ones who agreed to Mr. Chesney’s proposals in the first place. “I’ll get what I want because I have power and screw everyone else.” All of the villains that emerge are like this and so are some of the supposed good guys. The people who respect others, some of whom aren’t even people, wind up being the true heroes of the book because they work to mitigate the damage being done by this last season of Pilgrim Parties as everything goes haywire, eventually bringing the story to its happy conclusion where all the villains get punished, the ‘good guys’ are mostly ignored, and the good guys get to return to the happy lives they knew before they were interrupted by the awful ‘good guys’ and the Pilgrim Parties.
To be entirely fair, the plot itself wasn’t anything remarkable. You know from the start that things are going to more or less work out the way they seem to even though there’s not much in terms of foreshadowing, subtle or otherwise. In the end (SPOILERS), things literally only work out because the gods intervene, which apparently only happens because the world rose up to save themselves so the gods finally decided to pitch in. Literal deus ex machina. It hurt a little bit to see everything capped and explained in a few pages by gods who let all these people suffer for so long simply because the leaders hadn’t decided to put a stop to the Pilgrim Parties. Which is another example of powerful people who don’t respect less powerful people. The book is full of them, and they show up in the least likely places. Almost like it’s a theme, or something.
In the end, the only people who are truly happy are those who respect other people and treat everyone with a certain amount of kindness and care, regardless of how much power they have. The theme only becomes visible once you get to the end and can reflect back on the book, but it was a really fun read so I recommend taking the time to get there. If you want a good book that plays with your emotions and reactions to make its point, reads very easily (I cannot stress how wonderful a read this book was), and will show the humanity inherent in everything from Dragons to Griffons to Demons, definitely give Diana Wynne Jones’ The Dark Lord of Derkholm a read.