Dark Lord: The Early Years (British title: The Teenage Years), as the title suggests, is the first in a series by Jamie Thomson (writing under the duress and enchantment of Dirk Lloyd, the name forced upon the Dark Lord exiled to our plane of existence, specifically to the small, English town of Whiteshields; I will be calling Thomson the author).
Thomson struggles with continuity of voice and maintaining a constant narrative distance. I would not have a problem with an intertwined prose and diary format (which Thomson here uses), but what bothers me is that sometimes the narrator is observing Dirk and his companions, sometimes very deep in Dirk’s head, and sometimes in the heads of others.
Particularly Dirk’s—the close narrative third and the diary first not the distant or omniscient third—is a strong voice and particularly enjoyable. Dirk’s makes good use of the clichés (Dark Lord-isms, if you will), while remaining fresh. It is rare to really delve into the minds of Dark Lords. They more often stay entrenched in their towers (or commandeered Shrieking Shacks) or enter the battlefield heavily armored against their enemies, hidden behind walls that the author cannot or will not penetrate. Most fantasy is written from the point-of-view of the hero not the antihero—and if an antihero then often not an antihero who openly proclaims himself the “big bad” (more likely a minor bad or “neutral” character like a thief).
The characterization is a bit weak. You really don’t get to know any of the characters well, partially because Dirk sees everyone as lackeys till very late in the novel, partially because the characters are all quite happy to accept titles: the Dark Lord, Goth, Jock…. Chris Purejoie is the one who doesn’t fit very well into any of these titles. I like Chris.
More like Robert Cormier’s I Am the Cheese and less like Yann Martel’s Life of Pi, Thomson wisely creates the possibility of insanity and an unreliable narrator from the get-go. With I Am the Cheese and with Dark Lord: The Early Years, I enjoyed guessing and waffling between whether the narrative that was being spun for me was a true or false narrative. With Life of Pi, I was merely angry that I was left wondering whether or not the narrative was true. As a double major in English and Psychology, Dark Lord: The Early Years catered to both interests by being potentially a literary case study.
I do appreciate, however, that Thomson clears up the matter definitively, and I can’t say I’m displeased by how he does so.
The tale seems a little slow up until Dirk’s first attempt to return to the Darklands (around about page 110), then it picks up till it begins to barrel towards a conclusion around page 200. The conclusion makes me want to reach for the sequel, which is a fine compliment for a book—unfortunately, that sequel is not yet available this side of the Atlantic.
Despite these stylistic hiccups, I did really enjoy this book, laughing aloud at Dirk’s predicament, outrageous claims, and over-the-top voice. This is a book to read for its voice and for its parody of the whole high fantasy genre and the concept of a Dark Lord.
Thomson, Jamie. The Dark Lord: The Early Years. New York: Walker-Bloomsbury, 2011.
This review is not endorsed by Walker Publishing Company, Inc., Bloomsbury Publishing, Inc., or Jamie Thomson. It is an independent, honest review by a reader.