Sunday, September 27, 2015

Diana Wynne Jones, Dark Lord of Derkholm; and Year of the Griffin


Opening Passages: From Dark Lord of Derkholm:

"Will you all be quiet!" snapped High Chancellor Querida. She pouched up her yes and glared around the table.

"I was only trying to say--" a king, an emperor, and several wizards began.

"At once," said Querida, "or the next person to speak spends the rest of his life as a snake!"

From Year of the Griffin:

Nothing was going right with the Wizards' University. When High Chancellor Querida decided that she could not change the world and run the University as well, she took herself and her three cats off to a cottage beside the Waste, leaving the older wizards in charge. The older wizards seized the opportunity to retire. Now, eight years after the tours ended, the University was run by a committee of rather younger wizards, and it was steadily losing money.

Summary: In 1996, Diana Wynne Jones published The Tough Guide to Fantasyland; she had had fantasy fiction tropes on her mind because she had been one of a large number of authors contributing suggestions to The Encyclopedia of Fantasy. A parody tourist guidebook, it was a send-up, sometimes affectionate and occasionally acidic, of generic fantasy tropes -- Dark Lords, impossible economies and dubious social structures, generic, derivative monsters, and the like. Dark Lord of Derkholm is usually seen as a sort of sequel to The Tough Guide, but it goes well beyond it, since it is a parody of a genre that also manages to be an excellent example of the genre in its own right.

The conceit of Dark Lord is that a fairly generic world of magic is at the mercy of a man, Roland Chesney, from another world (one like ours, but apparently somewhat more advanced). He has found a way to control a powerful demon, and on that foundation he has managed to put together a thriving and ruthless business: Mr. Chesney's Pilgrim Tours, in which people in the other world who like fantasy can pay large sums of money to go over and experience it first-hand. As with any tour business, it is based on appearances, and so to guarantee that customers get the fantasy world they are expecting, the entire world is forced by Mr. Chesney to conform to generic fantasy tropes -- the Tours are organized as Quests to defeat a Dark Lord and must have extensive battles, wizards who look like wizards, and so forth. If they fail to conform, they get fined or worse, and since Mr. Chesney is backed by a demon, there is little that can be done to stop it. Nor are the Tours the only source of profit for Mr. Chesney. He receives large amounts of money for arranged assassinations, is receiving tributes of gold from dragons and dwarves, and, as it turns out, is also systematically stripping the world's magic to use as fuel in his own world. The amount of pain and suffering going into Mr. Chesney's profits is extraordinary.

The people of the world are fed up with it, so Querida, the most powerful wizard in the world, hatches a plan for a revolt. One element of the plan is to follow the advice of the Black Oracle and the White Oracle to appoint Derk the official Dark Lord for the next set of Tours and his human son Blade the last tour guide. I say 'human son' because Derk is a biological wizard of sorts and has, in addition to having one human son and one human daughter, also made intelligent griffins who are for practical purposes his children as well. The whole family has to pull together to make it through the ever-increasing disaster of the Tours, in the course of which more of Mr. Chesney's operations and the means by which he maintains his power come to light, leading to a final showdown: Mr. Chesney has demanded as the novelty surprise for this set of Tours that the people make their gods manifest to the pilgrim parties, but the gods have other plans.

The novel extensively satirizes generic fantasy tropes, and in a much less heavy-handed way than The Tough Guide, and is fun all the way through (although I always find the griffins more interesting than the humans). But it has a serious element, as well, one handled quite nicely, culminating in the god Anscher's rebuke of the people of the world for taking the easy way out. For over forty years, their land was devastated by the Tours, thousands killed in completely pointless battles, their cultures and civilizations thrown out of joint, their people regularly on the verge of famine, their entire lives subject to a tyrant who cared not a whit for them and used them only for his own profit -- and still, with all that, they found it easier than humbly asking the gods for help or taking responsibility for themselves. The absurdity of it is blatant, and yet it is perhaps all too plausible.

Year of the Griffin picks up the tale eight years later, tying up loose ends as the people of the world try to get their lives into an order that makes sense. Elda, the youngest of Derk's griffin children, has grown up and is off at University -- and finding it a decidedly mixed experience. For forty years the University was basically just a way to turn out wizard tour guides for Mr. Chesney's Tours, and the result has been disastrous. The University, no longer funded by the Tours, is in need of money; it is guided by an arbitrary standard of 'practical usefulness' in how it handles students while at the same time its teachers repeatedly show that they are themselves impractical and useless; and new thought is squelched with pretentious self-importance. Like its predecessor, the work is a satire, but its satirical edge is directed at academia, and despite caricature and a need to tie up other story lines, occasionally strikes very close to home.

Favorite Passages: From Dark Lord of Derkholm:

"The gods have been forced to wait, too," Anscher continued, "until people of this world asked to be able to rule their own affairs. The gods need to be asked. And for forty years the people of this world found it easier to do what Roland Chesney told them than to ask for this world for themselves....." (p. 512)

From Year of the Griffin:

Fun? Corkoran thought. What nonsense was this? Magic at University level was work. You were not supposed to have fun with it. Yet here was Lukin, expressing himself rather well in his tiny black writing, suggesting that magic was there to enjoy. Well, he was a prince, Corkoran thought, and had obviously been brought up to think that magic was what you relaxed with after a day's ruling. Corkoran decided to allow for that, and awarded Lukin a C, instead of the C minus he had first intended. (p. 147)

Recommendation: Dark Lord of Derkholm is definitely Recommended, and Year of the Griffin makes a nice follow-up for those who become interested in the characters of the first novel.

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