Welcome, all, to the first part of the joint review and reread of Katharine Kerr’s classic fantasy novel, Daggerspell. In the introductory post to this series, Kate Elliott described Kerr’s Deverry Cycle as “a criminally under-rated and overlooked epic fantasy sequence [with] a keen sense of history, well drawn characters, and a complex plot.” So, how better to explore the complexities of a fantasy series than picking it apart, piece-by-piece? If you’re interested in learning more about Kate, me or this project, please take some time to read ‘Introducing: The Daggerspell Reread and Review Series, with Kate Elliott’, where we discuss our experience with Kerr’s work (None for me! Lots for Kate!), and our expectations for this reread/review series.
Structurally, we’ll break down the ‘what happens,’ then we’ve both written some initial impressions, and then follow-up with a response to each other’s thoughts. This allows the initial impressions, and our polar past experiences with the series, to remain independent, and then mingle as we discover how we’ve both reacted to the covered sections.
If you’re ready to get to the good stuff, continue on, just know, there are:
Intro + Prologue + Cerrgonney 1052 + Deverry 643 + Deverry 1058 + Deverry 698 (pp. 1-196, total 196 pages)
Jill is born. Jill’s mom dies, her Dad coincidentally appears and whisks her away from her small village, promising the roller coaster life of a mercenary. Nevyn searches for Jill, meets Rhodry.
Nevyn (known by his old name, Galrion) has second thoughts about his betrothal to Brangwen. She’s beautiful, and he loves her, but he’s got a new mistress: dweomer (read: magic). Super weird love triangle (quadrangle? square?) between Galrion, who loves Brangwen and magic, Blaen, who loves Brangwen and is friends with Galrion, and Gerraent, who is friends with Blaen, but hates Nevyn because he’s betrothed to Brangwen, his sister who he’s secretly in love with. So, everyone loves Brangwen, though Galrion wants to give her up to Blaen so he can be a magical hermit in the woods, and Gerraent wants everything for himself. Long story short, Galrion is exiled by his father, the king, because of his dweomer use, Blaen wants to marry Brangwen, but she’s not into it because she’s mourning her father and still in love with Galrion, and Gerraent is mad at everyone because the world is fall apart around him and all he wants to do is have sex with his sister. Not that that would fix anything, at all. Brangwen, despairing and deeply depressed, gives into her brother’s desires. In addition, they form a suicide pact, to be completed at the end of summer. Not surprisingly, their secret incestuous relationship isn’t all it was cracked up to be, and both Brangwen and Gerraent fall deeper into depression. Blaen discovers their secret, but on confronting them, is killed by Gerraent. Galrion, now known as Nevyn, saves Brangwen before Blaen’s men come for vengence, but he cannot save her from herself. Driven by madness, she throws herself, and her unborn child, into a river. Gerraent is killed by Blaen’s men. Nevyn blames himself for the deaths and vows to use his dweomer to right the wrongs he has committed.
Time fast forwards.
Jill, who we now know is Brangwen reincarnated, still travels with her father, the famous swordsman, Cullyn. Nevyn continues his search for them and catches the first rumours that the girl he searches for is travelling with the mercenary. Nevyn cures Rhodry, who we now know is Blaen reincarnated, from illness and forms a bond with her mother, who invites him to court. Nevyn hopes that by staying near Rhodry, he will inevitably find Jill, whose wyrd (fate) is tied to Rhodry/Blaen.
Nevyn, now a wandering herbman, shows up in Deverry to uncover the cause of a mysterious drought. The local people think a horse sacrifice will do the trick, but Nevyn’s not convinced. There he finds Gweran, who is Blaen reborn, who is married to Lyssa, who, Nevyn is pleased to discover, is Brangwen. Caught between them all is an arrogant rider named Tanyc, who is, you guessed it… Gerraent reborn. Troubled by Tanyc’s feelings for his wife, Gweran provokes the rider to the point where Tanyc attacks him. For his crimes, attacking a bard, Tanyc is hanged. Nevyn takes Lyssa and Gweran’s son, Aderyn, under his wing as an apprentice.
In so many ways, I’m finding Daggerspell to be comfortably familiar. There’re wizards and kings, keeps, castles, herbmen and sword fights. In a time when I’ve been feeling intense nostalgia for ’80s and ’90s fantasy, Daggerspell seems to hit on a lot of the qualities that make the genre so endearing to me, though so tiresome to some other readers.
Kerr’s Deverry series, at least, to my knowledge, the first four volumes, stands part from the rest of epic fantasy because of its unusual structure, an aspect of the series that is impossible to ignore when discussing it. Instead of chapters, Daggerspell is split into several sections that take place, periodically, during different periods in history, from 643, when the first events between Galrion, Gerraeth and Brangwen occur, to 1058, when the ‘current’ plot occurs. Though only one of the characters, Galrion/Nevyn, actually lives through all of these periods, the rest of the cast shows up via reincarnations, tied eternally through their wyrd to each other. So, Brangwen, Jill and Lyssa are all, technically, the same spirit/soul, just in different bodies throughout time. At this point, I’m just settling into this idea, and I’m unsure about whether I should be treating these various incarnations as one character, or several with shared traits/personality identifiers and gender. Jill doesn’t seem much like Brangwen, being very persevering and hopeful, where Brangwen seems prone to depression and lacks independence.
Other fantasy series explore the idea of long-passed events rippling through centuries to affect the current story, notably George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, but few, if any, that I’ve read tackle it so directly, and, once I become more comfortable with it, I can see how the double-helix narrative could be an enormous asset to the series and help set it apart from its contemporaries.
If there’s been a stumbling block, it’s with the heavily Celtic/Welsh-influenced names and terms that work their way through the world. As an entrenched fantasy reader, I’m no rookie when it comes to difficult to pronounce names, but the complexities of the Celtic/Welsh languages were often difficult for me and I found it taking a bit longer than usual for me to feel comfortable with the characters and the places, often recognizing the names on paper, but lazily not pronouncing them in my head. Even with the pronunciation guide included at the beginning, I don’t even know where to begin with names like ‘Wmmglaedd,’ which isn’t in the book yet, but appears on one of the maps. I’ll get there, though. Eldidd, pronounced Ell-Dith, I think, is rolling off my ‘tongue’ fairly easily now.
The development between Brangwen and Gerraent wasn’t something I was expecting. At all. Gerraent’s jealousy is clear from the moment we’re introduced to him through Galrion’s eyes, but, the first inkling of his incestuous infatuation for his sister, exposed by this thoughts during a short period where the point-of-view switches to his perspective, was easy to ignore, because I didn’t expect an ’80s fantasy, that seemed fairly traditional, to include a topic so taboo. Though incest has been used narratively since the beginning of storytelling, it’s not something I expected to encounter in a pre-A Song of Ice and Fire fantasy novel. Though, events early in Stephenson’s Lord Foul’s Bane, a novel that, alongside Terry Brooks, kicked off the ’80s wave of fantasy, should have, perhaps, shattered that misconception for me. George R.R. Martin shocked me with Jaime and Cersei Lannister, but Kerr was there first, and the victimization of Brangwen is heartbreaking to watch. It’s no wonder Nevyn is so hard on himself, though he’s not the only one at fault. By a long shot.
Do not neglect the pronunciation guide.
Read it, especially as the series progresses, because an entire little drama plays out quite amusingly tucked into the comments at the end of each volume’s guide.
“In those days” — the narrator speaks.
One of my favorite things about the Deverry series is that rather than being written in tight third person point of view, it is actually written in omniscient. The entire sequence is narrated by an outside narrator who has a specific point of view. She is clearly writing in the “future” of the world; that is, the narrator is a writer in Deverry writing historical fiction about her own world. Throughout the series she makes asides reminding the reader how a city has grown or that certain lands weren’t yet cultivated. Because of this there is a constant living sense of a world that is changing as places do. Both through the device of the narrator inserting brief explanatory reminders and through the use of the reincarnated lives by which the reader moves back and forth through time via the “past life” sequences and sees the same places in different centuries, Kerr depicts a slowly-changing culture and landscape. Deverry is never a static world.
This relates to another thing this series does so well. I grant you I’m rereading so I already have a sense of Deverry from having read all fifteen books, but Kerr very efficiently and effectively creates and pulls us into this world through targeted description and small scale scenes. I never feel lost about who I’m with or what is going on or how the society is set up, and at the same time I never feel overwhelmed with description or information overload or infodump.
Because I know what will happen in the later books I can also appreciate how carefully she is layering in many references and names and things that will matter later. For example, pay close attention to the silver daggers. And also this crucial line: “Dishonour sticks closer to you than blood on your hands.”
Finally, a quick comment about the introduction of Jill and Cullyn. Jill’s is a classic abandoned child motif, but in her case she is not abused or mistreated (the owner of the inn and the local lord both give her charity as they feel is their duty, a nice touch that tells us a lot about Deverry society’s mores without at all being sentimentalized), and she is rescued by a dutiful father.
As for the father, note how deftly Kerr introduces and confirms Cullyn of Cerrmor’s reputation as “best swordsman in Deverry.” [Confession time: Cullyn is my favorite dude in the series.]
Huh. I did not find the Jaime/Cersei relationship to be shocking at all. But that may be because it wasn’t remotely the first time I had read it in a fantasy novel (much less other novels and actual historical examples).
Brangwen’s story is such a tragedy. Brangwen is in fact depicted as a very strong and optimistic young woman at first. It is clear that Brangwen is willing to give up everything to go with Galrion and that she is not afraid to do so but because Galrion holds the same mistaken belief about who and what she is that everyone else does (as a beautiful young woman of a certain rank) he consistently and continually underestimates her. In that sense his refusal to believe what Brangwen herself says to him makes him in large part responsible for her becoming trapped in the situation which leads to her giving up (and thus her depression and death). The very man who claims to love and respect her doesn’t really; that’s the message she hears even if she doesn’t quite understand it as such.
Kerr does an excellent job of showing how a young woman can both have agency and then have that agency absolutely denied by society’s constrictions which trap her. In an odd way Gerraent is the only person who fights for her. I don’t say that to excuse what he does but to point out how well Kerr creates the inevitability of the siblings’ doom: Once Galrion rejects Brangwen by refusing to see her as his equal, the end is determined.
I’ll have more to say later on the use of past lives woven throughout the series to illuminate how history touches the present but basically, yes, I agree with your thoughts on this. The immediacy of seeing the different lives as they play out gives me as the reader a stronger insight into the way those events influence later events than a more historical approach, if that makes sense.
Interesting. I think that your point about Jaime/Cersei opens the doors to the conversation about how much a reader brings to a story and how that, as much as the author’s words, helps to define their experience with it. I first read A Game of Thrones in 2003, when I was nineteen years old and it was unlike anything I’d read before within fantasy. I’d moved beyond the entry-level fantasists, like Brooks and Salvatore, but even Williams and Hobb didn’t prepare me for some of the things Martin challenges his readers with.
Reflecting more on Brangwen, and reading your thoughts above, what I find most fascinating about her, in all her forms, is that the character traits that I was contrasting earlier, Jill’s hope and Brangwen’s despair, aren’t necessarily markers that I should be considering these to be two separate characters, but that circumstance can be such a hugely defining factor in determining what traits and core personality attributes grow strong and come to dominate a person’s decision making, internally and externally, and how the reader eventually forms a relationship with them. Between these two is Lyssa, who appears to have led a fairly conflict free life (at least compared to Jill and Brangwen), and hasn’t had need to develop the same defence mechanisms as her other two lives. It’s not the Brangwen, Lyssa and Jill are so different from one another, at their core, but that life (or their wyrd) handed them different cards, and so we different facets of their character, different strengths and weaknesses in response to external circumstances and challenges in their lives. These three women are so fascinating for how their decisions and struggles define the world (it’s culture, societal values, the choices of the powerful, etc…) that they live in. Examine the women, and you’ll learn much about the society.
And, given the intense flaws in Gerraent and Tanyc, I’m incredibly curious to discover why Kate loves Cullyn so much (outside of being an irascible master swordsman.)
In all, I’m impressed. Kerr’s writing is easy to read, the (sort of) small cast of characters is immediately easy to connect with, even if I didn’t really like some of them too much, and the world, confusing names and all, seems well lived in and wide open for exploration. Very much looking forward to the remainder of the book.