I get on kicks where I read a whole bunch of one author at a time, and it appears that this is one of those times. Diana Wynne Jones is someone I wished I had discovered earlier, because I would have worshiped her books had I read them as a girl. As it is, I find myself loving them and wishing I was clever enough to have written something half so amazing. Howl’s Moving Castle and Chrestomanci are what she is known for, but she has tens of obscure books that are also wonderful. Here are my thoughts on two of them:
The Dark Lord of Derkholm:
The Dark Lord of Dirkholm wasn’t what I thought it would be. I expected magical, funny, and chaotic. After all, it’s a Diana Wynne Jones novel, and those are the things she does best. This was funnier than that, and more awful than that as well.
The basic premise is that a bumbling family man, farmer, and wizard named Dirk is elected to play Dark Lord to a host of pilgrim parties that come through their world via portals every Fall. The pilgrim parties are destroying their landscape, and an oracle says that if they elect Dirk as Dark Lord, the pilgrim parties will end. Dirk is famous for his genetic experimentation on animals, breeding intelligent and, frankly, really cool things. There are the Friendly Cows, the Carnivorous Sheep, the Flying Pigs, the Sentient Dogs. And then there are his “children:” Griffins bred from he and his wife’s DNA, and reared with his natural-born children. They all work together to make the pilgrim parties go well (for a while).
It’s a funny commentary on the Dungeons and Dragons genre, and Jones really knows her stuff. It’s hilarious to see regular human beings conform to the tropes of the genre for heaps of overzealous tourists. Among the hilarity, though, Jones makes a more serious point: the fact that this isn’t actually a game. Killing isn’t a game, and neither is war, or sacking villages, or being kidnapped, or being forced to fight in an arena. It’s mostly well done, although it left me reeling a few times as she transitioned between funny and not. Sometimes it was seamless, sometimes it wasn’t. I definitely lost the sense of profluence during some of the many battle scenes with the Dark Lord’s army.
I’m a HUGE fan of Jones’s work and I’ve read tons of it. I liked this book more for the world and the characters than for the story itself. Still, I enjoyed reading it and would recommend it to other fans. If you haven’t read a lot of Diana Wynne Jones, things like Aunt Maria, Howl’s Moving Castle, Fire and Hemlock, Dogsbody, and the Chrestomanci series were much better.
Speaking of books by Diana Wynne Jones: The Homeward Bounders is another that is waiting for a full review. This one is about a boy who finds that his world is actually a game board in use by a bunch of demons. He’s cast out of his world for the discovery, forced to wander the boundaries (the bounds) of hundreds of worlds until he can get home again. Along the way, he picks up a motley collection of other Homeward Bounders who are intent on destroying the demons and reclaiming their worlds together.
This book was more of the Diana Wynne Jones type. A whole collection of random occurrences pull together at the end to all make brilliant sense. Along the way, her collection of worlds is fascinating and funny. While the myths in her stories are nebulous and are hard to pinpoint, these felt like Greek. There is an ultimate Homeward Bounder who is so similar to Prometheus, but the Flying Dutchman and his crew also make an appearance, among others.
The worlds are in flux, so the story seemed less anchored than some of her other stories. The rules are always changing. While I think this was probably not purposeful, it serves the story well enough. Because of the multitude of worlds, this book also has a strange factor that is deeper than her other books. For the queen of strange, that’s really saying something… I would certainly recommend the read, though. Not her absolute best, but “not her best” by Diana Wynne Jones is often high and far above the best of others.