The Dark Lord Clementine by Sarah Jean Horwitz

Review by Elina Taillon

Algonquin Young Readers, October 2019

336 pages, paperback, $17.95 CAD, 978-1-61620-894-3

Ages 10+, Grades 5-8

Middle Grade, Fantasy, Humour

What if they know? What if the townspeople had found out about Lord Elithor’s curse? What if they knew that the man who had overtaxed their grain and serviced them with predatory loans and once turned the whole soprano section of the church choir into cats was holed up in his tower like a recluse, slowly being whittled away? What would they do if they figured out that the Dark Lord Elithor couldn’t threaten them with more than a baleful glare and a pointy wooden finger?

They would overthrow you, a little voice inside Clementine said. They would raze your farm and castle to dust and run you out of town forever—or worse. And what would you do then?

Clementine Morcerous is many things: a young gardener, a user of magic…and an heiress in a long line of Dark Lords. But when her father is cursed to be whittled away by a witch who covets the title, Clementine finds herself assuming responsibility sooner than expected. With Lord Elithor’s magic weakening, the estate falls apart: the scarecrow servants stop working, the poison apple crop withers, the fire-breathing chickens burn down their fence. How dire can the situation get before the Council of Evil Overlords either revokes their family title or turns them into a cloud of small insects? Clementine may not technically be allowed to help undo her father’s curse, but maybe with the help of new friends (er, servants), her latent powers, and slight bending of the rules, she can nonetheless work some magic of her own.

As Clementine leaves the shelter of Castle Brack to experience the wider world and take more risks, she learns of the danger and wonder awaiting her. Alongside magical creatures, irate trees, and witch covens, the company of other people presents strange new experiences. As she learns important lessons about trust and enmity, Clementine is forced to reflect on her previously sequestered life as a Dark-Lord-In-Training and to think about what she truly wants. And it may not be the life of evildoing and destruction her father has planned out for her…

This fantasy coming-of-age story contains a healthy dose of humour and imagination. The two-part chapter names alone are worth a few laughs (one example: “In Enemy Territory or The Probability of Being Baked in a Pie Increases Exponentially”), and each new glimpse of Clementine’s world is delightful and unexpected in some way. As the reader quickly learns, the “darkness” of even Lord Elithor isn’t all that evil; this is a tale for anyone who secretly roots for the charming villain. A fantasy with a twist, it has potential to undo conventions around the language of “light” and “dark” as metaphors for good and evil. However, it doesn’t push this boundary too much, sticking to showing the moral ambiguity of characters that don’t quite fit the “evil” mold. It’s the modern irony and puns that make for a new angle on familiar fantasy tropes.

The omniscient voice bounds from character to character, not only keeping the pace quick but allowing us into their inner worlds. Though there are no revolutionary surprises when it comes to plot, the real treasure of this novel is the journey the reader takes along with Clementine as she grows and moves through the world, accompanied by her irreverent and clever commentary. Fans of witty, improbable tales that don’t talk down to readers and that reveal the absurdity of the world through fiction, such as A Series of Unfortunate Events or Artemis Fowl, will surely enjoy The Dark Lord Clementine.

Elina is earning her MFA in Creative Writing at UBC to accompany her MA in French Literature from U of T. She enjoys books, fanciful thinking, cats, and teatime.

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