Hardcover Middle Grade Fantasy, 336 pp.
[I read the e-copy lent by the public library]
“Clementine Morcerous awoke one morning to discover her father had no nose.”
Twelve-year-old Clementine is Dark Lord Morcerous’ heir and only other person living in Castle Brack when a curse on her father begins to threaten everything she’s ever known. With Elithor confined to his laboratory to decipher a cure, Clementine is left to tend to their “silent farm” and failing household. She has to maintain a front of normalcy in hopes that normal will return, but its challenging when The Council of Least Esteemed Overlords requires a Dastardly Deed from them to maintain their membership; when the fence between the regular chickens and fire-breathing ones is no longer protected by magic; when she has to barter with the traveling satyr, or interact with villagers she was raised to see as figures to torment. The icing on this cake is the mysterious figure who cursed her father who finally makes an appearance and appears to be winning.
“There were even a few slim volumes of poetry her father pulled out to scowl over once in a while, presumably to brush up on his brooding skills when nothing else in life was going appropriately pear-shaped.”
From color changing hair, to nightmares (mares of the sort Dark Lords would breed), to the Lady of the Lake (yes, that one), to the Gricken (Grimoire turned chicken), Horwitz builds a really charming world. Charming in more of the macabre fairytale realm and sense of humor. Clementine is being raised as successor to a long line of Dark Lords; they are maintaining an orchard of poisoned apples for a reason. One of the reasons is an economic one, the Morcerous House’s income comes from trading in Elithor’s inventions, artifacts, and whatever they produce on their “silent farm,” terrifying greenhouse of carnivorous plants included. Much of the whimsy is set against a backdrop of the mundane. Clementine has a farm to run and an ailing father to protect. She has to go to the village and interact with children her age and figure out which adults can be trusted. She has to beware of witches and malevolent forests.
“Bulbous clouds hung thick and gray in the sky as Clementine, the black sheep, the Gricken, and a young nightmare set off into the woods. Clementine hoped that the sight of the future Dark Lord Morcerous riding a jet-black nightmare would be enough to intimidate any potential adversaries, even if the nightmare in question was only old enough to inspire slight feelings of unease and disconcerting stress dreams about forgetting to turn the oven off.”
As capable as Clementine is, she is still young. And where she may have been able to keep secret gardens and conversations with the Lady in White to herself before, stepping into an avatar role of Dark Lord is exposing the cracks in her relationship with her father and his legacy. As she comes more into herself, the title of the novel becomes more and more tongue in cheek. Or perhaps, she just owns it in her own way—which is fun to think about. But some narrative moves are trickier for Horwitz. Advancing a character like Clementine, particularly in her changing relationships with the people around her is pretty breathtaking. Elithor is not a good human, most could say his relationship with Clementine is abusive.
“She was crying because she was ashamed. Not about the light magic—although there would be plenty of time to feel bad about that later. No. Clementine was ashamed because out of all the memories in her entire life, her happiest moment had not been a victory over her enemies or satisfaction at the completion of one of her father’s Dastardly Deeds. Her happiest memory had nothing to do with her father or her very calling in life, at all. Her happiest memory had been escaping them.”
Another two relationships put her in serious peril. And the question is whether Horwitz can build enough compassion into her characters and readers before we get to the big confrontations. Is she successful in recovering them through their weaknesses and strengths? [I think so, and I’m impressed.]
“Asking for help was dangerous. Asking for help might reveal how helpless she really was.”
Clementine is going to need help, not just with household chores, but under the threat of a powerful witch. She is only surrounded by enemies of her legacy’s making, and anyone else has just as dangerous an agenda. Horwitz’s provisions for Clementine mean whittling characters down to their humanity and revealing a complicated truth in its healthier terms: that they need each other. The relationship dynamics are initially portrayed with toxicity, and Horwitz makes that a hurtle to be overcome—with some harsh realities still intact. Forgiveness is involved—and it won’t be an easy one; or is it? Clementine is a surprising character with a powerful magic, but even more powerful, that heart of hers (which does not sound as cheesy after you’ve read the book).
“For people who supposedly make a living causing death and destruction, Dave thought, the Morcerouses were awfully concerned with propriety.”
Most of the story is told from Clementine’s point of view, but Horwitz will introduce a few more characters with their own personal conflicts. We meet a black sheep named Dave, a village boy Sebastian who dreams of being a Knight, the Whittle Witch herself, Vivienne aka The Lady in the Lake, and the huntress from the other side of the Seven Sisters Mountains Darka Wesk-Starzec. Horwitz implements them as it serves the story and its themes, and there was a stretch where Darka treads more of the stage. You could tell a lesser story without Darka, but you’d never get that ending. There is so much heartbreak in this story…and of differing kinds; e.g. Sebastian is a heart breaking open for Clementine; to say nothing of his struggle with personal expectations of valor.
“Clementine could not think of the unicorn the same way she thought of the nightmares or the fire-breathing chickens. The unicorn did not inspire fear or disgust—and yet it did not make her exactly happy, either. Even now, as goose bumps rose on her skin despite the warm evening, Clementine felt the presence of the unicorn like an ache around her heart. It felt like crying with her head against her father’s knobby knees, but also like the glow of moonlight on her favorite flowers as she talked to the Lady in White, or like hearing snatches of songs forgotten so long ago they were barely memories.”
Heartbreak is an ingredient in unicorn stories, and I was surprised and delighted to find that The Dark Lord Clementine features unicorns. It’s full of creatures and lore; nods to familiar tales, but with Horwitz’s own twists. I enjoyed the messenger birds, the simulacra, and the nightmares. I like seeing Clementine and Darka as both bad-asses and nurturers. I appreciate the sensitivity in Sebastian. And Kat Marie as a crone revisited.
I was hoping to be amused by The Dark Lord Clementine, at the very least. And it is the dark sort of charming I enjoy. What I found was so much more, darker and craftier…and complicated. It has plenty of the silly to off-set the gritty, but it’s like that moment with the Lady of the Lake near the end; written toward and perfectly tuned into the most unexpected moment of held breath. There are a lot of these moments. Horwitz is clever with the humor and strategic in those punches square in the chest.
*First blush, I would say this is a middle grade (8-12) read, but not for those with little relationship to fantasy, tale in particular. Darka adds a little older dimension, and some clever allusions will be noted and enjoyed by older readers (12-14).
For readers of Grimm and the Arthurian, Dark Lord Clementine is an obvious choice. Horwitz love of language and lines like “as if it were the reeking, rotting stench emanating from the rapidly decomposing corpse of her reputation,” should draw Snicket fans. For readers of Townsend’s Nevermoor series or Anderson’s May Bird Trilogy.
Sarah Jean Horwitz grew up next door to a cemetery and down the street from an abandoned fairytale theme park, which probably explains a lot. She currently lives near Boston, MA.