Dark Lord of Derkholm, by Diana Wynne Jones

Second paragraph of third chapter:

The two of them preceded Querida and Barnabas up the straight drive (for, despite working until after midnight, Derk had not found room to make the drive wander as he wanted) and to the enormous terrace, where they politely bowed the two wizards up the steps. It was perhaps unfortunate that the moving around of the garden had resulted in the clump of man-eating orchids arriving at a bed just beside these steps. They made a dart at Querida as she passed, all several dozen yellow blooms at once. Querida turned and looked at them. The orchids drew back hastily.

This came to me strongly recommended as a superior example of the great Diana Wynne Jones’ work. It didn’t completely grab me, but I still quite liked it. The setting is a fantasy world which has been taken over by a commercial tour company from a world like ours; inhabitants are expected to dress up and engage in mock fantasy activities for the benefit of the tourists, and the unfortunate Derk is appointed Dark Lord of Derkholm in an effort to lead his world’s response to the problem, which at the same time dealing with some complicated teenage family dynamics where not all of the teenagers are human.

DWJ was always particularly deft and sympathetic at portraying family relations (perhaps The Ogre Downstairs is her high point) and that’s certainly the strength of this book, where quite a lot is shown rather than told. My difficulty was with the fantasy setting, where on the one hand we are invited to dislike the tourists from “our” world who don’t take it seriously (or take it too seriously), and yet the characters veer a little too closely to early Pratchett in their own appreciation of their setting. In Farah Mendlesohn’s terminology, it veers between several different rhetorics – liminal, immersive and portal (and possibly a kind of reverse intrusive) – without really settling on any of them. It’s also rather longer than the story really deserves. As mentioned above, I still quite liked it. You can get it here.

This was the top unread sf book on my shelves (excluding previous award winners and current Hugo finalists). Next on that list is Grimm Tales, by Philip Pullman.

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