Jones, Diana Wynne. 1998. Dark Lord of Derkholm. New York: Greenwillow (Morrow).
Reviewed 11 July 1999
In a sense, this is a companion book to The Tough Guide to Fantasyland. It is not as successful as the Guide, probably because it was "written down" to YA a little bit. It misses many opportunities to lampoon excesses of the Interminable Fantasy Series ("IFS"tm), particularly those that are "grown up."
The premise picks up from the Guide. Derk is a wizard who has been selected as "Dark Lord" this year by the (unnamed) wizards' University. The entire imaginary world continent has been essentially coopted by Tours, all enforced by the Tours' creator, a Mr. Ronald Chesney. There is probably an in-joke regarding "Ronald Chesney" that I don't get; virtually every other name in the book seems to be an in-joke. Unknown to Derk, he was selected for one purpose, and one purpose only: the assumption that he would screw up the Tours. The wizards, and darned near everyone else in the world, are fed up with the Tours. "It's not an adventureit's just a job."
And here is where the book goes astray. This book is both too long and too short. It is too long because many of the side plotlines are poorly detailed and wholly unnecessary. Yes, this novel is a lampoon. However, inferring such a self-referential meaning fits with neither the "YA" target nor the wimpy "adventures" actually included. It is too short because there are many wonderful opportunities to explore the self-reference, but more importantly because it stays wholly in the imaginary world. The ultimate resolution of the bookwhich, I might add, is fast, cheap, and depends upon a literate adult's knowledge of British governmentfairly screams for long, Donaldsonesque side trips into Chesney's own "universe."
That said, the book avoids many of the traps inherent in parodying such an easy target. A good parody is actually much more difficult to write than it looks. It would have been much too easy to make the characters even more self-aware than they already are. And there are a few more serious points slipped in along with the laughs. For example, the preparations for the obligatory battle are handled extremely well.
But the real failure is the absence of the "s" word from the book. The book makes one inclined to lie on one's back and think of England. Given the prominence of passionate "s__" and general thinking with the gonads in IFS, a thorough parody would certainly include them. This is, no doubt, a product of some YA marketing guru's strictures. Perhaps someone thought s___al content would prevent library sales? Whatever the rationale, it is a considerable weakness in the book.
In The Moon Is a Harsh Mistress, Manny attempts to explain humor to an artificial intelligence by dividing jokes into two classes: "funny once" and "funny always." Dark Lord of Derkholm, I'm afraid, falls into the former class. It goes after, and gets, cheap laughs with considerable panache. But they're just belly laughs; absent surprise, they don't stay funny. One could, I suppose, build some postmodern explanation that this is a high form of self-reference, and that the lack of anything meaningful is in fact the point. Then again, most of those postmodern explanations come from a nation that believes that there is nothing funnier than Jerry Lewis; they are sliced away by Occam's Razor.
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