Sunday, 26 March 2017

Book Review - The Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones

Better than Disneyland
Capitalism, capitalism, capitalism. If our society were to discover a gateway to an alternate universe, a universe which is very much like a typical world from high fantasy, then what would we do? Share information and technology? Embrace this miracle as a chance to learn from the new world?

In The Dark Lord of Derkholm we’ve commodified it, selling tours around the fantastical world that allow people to have their own quest. People can rampage through a world, fighting battles, defeating vampires and demons before slaying the dark lord, and saving the world.

It takes the world all year to recover properly, and then they have to do it all again.

Sounds about right, doesn’t it?

Juggling Responsibilities.
As the new dark lord, it’s wizard Derk’s job to organize the tours. Naturally, organizing a whole world gives him rather a lot to do. Wynne Jones gives herself an awful lot to do too: through the marriage of mundane logistics and fantastical surroundings, she looks to convey familial drama and intrigue. Throughout the story there’s lots of hanging plot threads, and almost always more than one thing going on at the same time.

Not only is there the lingering threat of arch-capitalist Mr Cheney, who functions as the primary antagonist of the story, there are also other dangers in the world; demons, dragons. Even a potential saboteur amongst their own ranks. There are twists and turns and agents acting behind the scenes here.

Despite all the elements that she is playing with, Wynne Jones keeps things generally very well balanced. At times there’s a little bit too much and too little at the same time – there’s no real obvious end goal being worked towards, and coupled with the slightly meandering structure of the story, this can create the sense that the story gets stuck in a rut.

Lots to do
The story is focused around Derk and his rather large family, and their relationships with each other form the emotional core of the story. Even in this Wynne Jones convincingly marries the mundane and the fantastical – three of the family members are griffins.

Despite this, Wynne Jones creates a very solid picture of a family creaking at the seams under pressure. The characters are all very Wynne Jones – there’s a certain gentleness to them, even whilst the events are less so.

Just for context
Amongst all these balancing acts, Wynne Jones’ biggest triumph is the world that she creates. In introducing all these ideas that are more modern, she successfully creates a sense of a genuine fantastical world too. She parses out elements of the world slowly, keeping back new things to be introduced later. There’s also a lingering sense of a bigger world just off the page too, that the characters are just too busy to take us to.

That she manages to maintain this sense of the fantastical amongst the mundane, and does so throughout the novel is its main strength. It’s conclusion is unfortunately rushed, and the plot drive can sag at times. A worthy read, nonetheless.

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