October 12, 2023


The Dark Lord’s Daughter. By Patricia C. Wrede. Random House. $17.99.

     Some writers have a talent for making the ordinary extraordinary. And some have a talent for making the unbelievable believable. And then there is Patricia C. Wrede, who rings changes on both the extraordinary and the unbelievable while keeping her tongue just firmly enough in cheek so that young readers – and, let’s face it, older ones as well – are thoroughly entertained while being ever-so-subtly nudged into comedic realms as well as those of fantasy.

     Wrede has not written a novel for a decade, and fans of the fantasy genre will realize how much they have missed her delightfully off-kilter narrative voice as soon as they start reading The Dark Lord’s Daughter. It has a perfectly ordinary plot by genre standards: young girl in the age range targeted by the novel (Kayla, who is 14) discovers she is really the long-lost ruler of a strange land in a strange world, to which she is transported – along with her adopted mother and brother – when a man who is suitably costumed for the State Fair turns out really to be costumed for his home world, which is actually Kayla’s home world, to which the man transports Kayla and her brother and mom through the always-efficient medium of magic.

     And then it is time for Kayla to learn who she really is, what her powers really are, why she was on our Earth in the first place, and all that sort of stuff.

     The tropes are all there and the presentation could easily be trite in the wrong hands. Wrede’s hands, however, are the right ones. Kayla is not a sweet, long-missed, long-lost princess, but the daughter of a Dark Lord named Xavriel of Zaradwin, and her real name is thus Xavrielina, and it is her duty under the Traditions of her true home world to assume control of her dark dominions and rule over them mercilessly until she is inevitably but gloriously overthrown and destroyed. There’s even a book called The Dark Traditions to show her how to do what needs to be done. It is conveniently magical, shows up when needed, and obligingly changes the name on its cover from Xavrielina to Kayla when Kayla makes it clear that she vastly dislikes her otherworldly name and has no intention of answering to it.

     Offering teenagers the chance to experience, vicariously, tremendous magical power, plus the obedience of servants and toadies and adults of all types, is a great recipe for a successful book for young readers. But Wrede, true to her always slightly skewed worldview, does not let any of this be straightforward. Of course Kayla is a good person who has no intention of living up (or down) to the expectations associated with Dark Lords and Dark Ladies. Of course she is going to use her magic for good, if that is possible – although since it is dark magic, that may not be possible. But since she cannot figure it out anyway, that may not even matter.

     On the other hand, Kayla does have powers that will stand her in good stead at Zaradwin, because it turns out – in the cleverest element of The Dark Lord’s Daughter – that items brought to a magic-possessing world that lacks technology, from a technology-possessing world that lacks magic, change into their more-or-less equivalents in the new place. This is a wonderful idea that is first seen when a cell phone (message-carrying technology device) turns into a super-speedy mouse (not the computer kind but a powered-by-magic rodent that carries messages and runs at an astonishing pace). The concept is most thoroughly worked through, and most important, when it comes to Kayla’s laptop computer, which she has christened Macavinchy. The name is never explained, but it probably means the unit is a Macintosh that Kayla associates with Leonardo da Vinci – or something like that. In any case, on arrival at Zaradwin, Macavinchy becomes a kind of winged sort-of-monkey thing and Kayla’s magical familiar – now with the ability to access and process data through magical means while conversing in the British accent that Kayla gave her computer when it was a computer.

     The scenes with Macavinchy are marvelous and, at the book’s climax, absolutely crucial. Equally wonderful are the scenes with a couple of skeletal dragons – Wrede has a thing about dragons – that are built into Zaradwin Castle. In fact, the interactions that involve the dragons and Macavinchy, plus other magical beings, are the best in the book, and they make the inevitable direct challenge to Kayla’s power (another of those fantasy tropes) almost laugh-out-loud funny as it fails.

     Not everything works quite this well in The Dark Lord’s Daughter, however. Riki, Kayla’s adopted mother, is a thinly sketched, petulant character, less protective than perpetually irritated. Del, Kayla’s younger brother, is not so much adventurous as he is uncontrolled and thoughtless, and his character is never really developed. Ah, but that points to the ultimate difficulty with this novel: there are many, many, many loose ends left dangling when it concludes, and it reads as if Wrede simply forgot issues such as the “which world?” problem, the interworld-transfer difficulty, the unexpected discovery that Del may have some sort of inexplicable magic even though he comes from a non-magical world, the hinted-at challenges to the incoming Dark Lady, Kayla’s own difficulties as she tries to learn even the basics of magic, the importance (or lack thereof) of various hangers-on that Kayla has picked up along the way, and much more. The book wraps up neatly on one level, but on another, its inconclusion is so inconclusive that there simply has to be a sequel in the works, and maybe several – even though The Dark Lord’s Daughter is not specifically stated to be the start of a series. Readers are almost certainly going to demand that it become one. And perhaps they should be called “Wrede-ers” (REE-dee-ers) for suitably magical purposes.

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