Welcome back to the Daggerspell Reread and Review Series!
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.
Last time around, we began reading Daggerspell and covered the first 196 pages. In that time, we were introduced to a feisty girl with an unlikely destiny, her worldweary father, an herbman who is much more than he seems, and a 400 year old tragedy that still resonates through their lives and the world of Deverry.
Kate explored the world of Deverry and unpacked why Katharine Kerr was able to create such a compelling and deeply lived-in fantasy world:
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.
So, return with us to the world of Deverry as we rejoin Jill, Cullyn and Nevyn as well as meet some new friends and enemies!
Eldidd 1062 (pp. 197-387, total 184 pages)
So, Rhodry (remember him?) got a candlemaker’s daughter pregnant. Shock. His mother, Lovyan, a strong political figure in her own right, isn’t too happy about it, so she’s makes Rhodry apologize. (Who’ll be surprised if that baby becomes important? Not this blogger.)
The Gwerbret of Aberwyn, Rhys, who is daughter of Lovyan and brother to Rhodry, refuses to engage in a political hot pot, over matters of succession and taxes, unless she disinherits Rhodry. He generally seems like a dick. Lovyan’s no fool, and refuses to do so.
Meanwhile, Cullyn has trained his daughter, Jill, in the art of warfare, swordplay and being awesome. They take a job guarding a caravan that is heading out to trade with the Westfolk (pointy ears, magical affinity, mysterious society. Hmmm.) They run across a creepy dude named Loddlaen (he’ll be back.) With the Westfolk (Oh, they’re elves!), the meet an old Deverrian man named Aderyn (who, yep, you remember from earlier, when he was just a plucky kid.) They learn that Loddlaen is a fugitive, wanted by the Westfolk for murder. The caravan returns with a number of the Westfolk who plan to take legal action against Loddlaen in Lovyan’s court.
The caravan is attacked by bandits-who-are-actually-soldiers-from-the-brewing-rebellion-that-Rhys-ignored, and Jill races to Lovyan for help. She runs into Rhodry, who’s all dreamy and stuff. Rhodry arrives and saves the day. Everyone, including Nevyn, who was travelling with Rhodry, seems to be a magician now.
“Luke, I am your father!”
Turns out that Loddlaen’s a bad magic guy, and also Aderyn’s son, but he’s being controlled by some other more evil force that has something out for Rhodry. To defeat the leader of the rebellion, who has been prophesied as dying at the hand of no man, Rhodry recruits Jill, who’s pretty handy with a sword.
Bird battle, silver arrows and daggers, ahoy! Jill kills Corbyn, the leader of the rebellious army. Whoo hoo!
Jill and Rhodry fall in love and get kinky.
This long self contained section has something of the feel of a novella because it encompasses a somewhat self contained episode even though it is tightly tied into the past and future of the book.
I want to begin by talking about the introduction of Lovyan. Deverry is a patriarchal society in which men rule (to describe it in simplistic terms). Some people think that means that in such societies female characters only function as Non-Player-Characters, people without agency whose minor roles are fully and solely at the service of the plot in the sense that they do not have any important personality or things they might want or need to do, or that if they are Characters then they only have agency insofar as they aid and/or illuminate a man’s plot.
But this never has to be the case. For one thing, simplistic ideas about “how it was in the past” are almost without exception wrong.
Look how neatly Kerr introduces an older woman: She is a noblewoman who through a completely realistic twist in the law (explained clearly by Kerr) is a ruler in her own right although she is subordinate to her own son (who is gwerbret, which I will define here as a lord who is of lesser rank than the king but who has a number of lords under his rule).
Lovyan does not swing a sword. She rules. She rules over a collection of lesser lords (all landed) with a full understanding of the ways in which her situation gives her power and the ways in which she has to carefully negotiate her position because she is a woman.
Note the brief glimpse of how she has surrounded herself with two unmarried women, described as competent and smart, by offering them a way out of marriages neither wanted to seal in an age where a woman (especially of the noble class) had few options. Yet Kerr shows the reader options. Lovyan’s companions aren’t important to the plot; they are important as a way of revealing Lovyan’s character and as background setting. This is what I mean when I say a writer who can’t be bothered to think outside the box of a very narrow range of what are deemed “important characters” is actually going to write an impoverished background because women like this will be invisible.
Lovyan proves herself as a good ruler even while Kerr makes it clear that her being a woman makes her situation precarious. Nor is her role seen as a one note role. She is frustrated by her inability to reconcile her feuding sons (an issue that will become central to the plot later), she engages with Nevyn because she understands that he is far more than the simple herbman he pretends to be, she shows kindness to Jill. And she is a little secret in her past, an affair she obviously has had to keep hidden all these years.
She is an older woman with agency and a full personality in a genre that gives characters like her short shrift. She is absolutely one of my favorite characters in the entire series.
A quick comment on the romance. I think Kerr does a great job showing how young Jill and Rhodry really are; their thoughts and actions are so believable and a little callow and very youthful and real.
In response to part one of this series, Erik made a comment that stuck out at me, “Only the “present” parts feel emotionally charged. The “flashbacks” read like voice overs with rather bad dialog to me.” On initial glance, I hadn’t thought of this, but, reflecting further, I realized that I had, in some ways, struggled a bit with this same feeling of detachment while reading the Deverry 643 and Deverry 698 sections. Well, perhaps ‘struggled’ is the wrong word, for I enjoyed my time reading about those incarnations of the characters well enough, but, to me, there does seem to be something of a tonal shift in how Kerr approaches storytelling in these sections that removed me somewhat as a reader on an emotional level, even if I am still interested and invested on an intellectual level.
I can’t tell if this is intentional, and I hesitate to pass any sort of judgement, because I can’t critically pinpoint why these sections feel more like a narrative-style glimpse at a history book, rather than the intimate and intensely personal perspective featured in Jill’s timeframe. On the other hand, it might be a subconscious decision on my part as the reader to emotionally detach myself from situations in the novel that are emotionally difficult, which Brangwen’s portion of the novel certainly is. To make it short, I felt like I was reading about Brangwen, but I feel like I’m journeying alongside Jill.
I feel like I’m having some difficulty articulating and gathering this idea, so it’s something I hope to unpack a bit more between now and the final re-read/review series instalment.
Further in those comments, Philip Foster said, “I love the way each chapter feels complete like a short story or novella, this really aids the sense of being slowly immersed in the history of this world and the great events which continue to shape these characters through generations.” In many ways, I think this is one of Daggerspell‘s greatest strengths. With a non-traditional narrative structure, this decision to compose the novel as a series of, essentially, several interconnected short stories allows Kerr to provide several moments of rising action, complete with climaxes and then rippling repercussions throughout the ‘sequels.’ Structurally, it wouldn’t work in all novels, but Kerr handles it brilliantly and allows her to cram an incredible amount of story, plot and character development into a (relatively) short novel.
It felt great to be returned to Jill and Cullyn. Given the emotionally heavy prior segments, Jill’s enthusiasm and Cullyn’s calm, world-weary confidence was like returning to old friends. This surprised me in some ways, because I hadn’t realized I’d grown so attached to them earlier in the novel. Knowing, however, the relationship between them in their previous lives, not to mention Rhodry/Blaen, adds a level of depth to the father and daughter that fostered immediate empathy in me as a reader. Seeing Cullyn’s love for his daughter, and knowing now that it is the same love that Gerraent had for his sister, but expressed in an honest and beautifully loving way, is enough to give me goosebumps. On their own, Jill and Cullyn are likeable, but having experienced Brangwen’s tragedy as a reader, they become lovable.
At no point in the earlier parts of the novel was I ever as invested in the characters and the world as I was during Eldidd 1062. This is the first point in the novel where we find something that represents a more traditional fantasy narrative. The “Luke, I am your father,” plotline bewtween Aderyn and Loddlaen is nothing new, though at the time the novel was initially published, 1986, the trope was, maybe, a little less stale than it is now, but the victimization of Loddlaen, and the few moments that Kerr spends exploring his motivations and the anger that fills him, is enough to remind me that I’m not very fussy when it comes to cliches, as long as they’re played off well.
Oh, also, Aderyn is super awesome.
My favourite scene in the entire book, bar none, is the scene where Rhodry first falls in love with Jill, as she dismantles and humiliates a solider in a one-on-one brawl. This scene tells us so much about Jill, Rhodry and Cullyn, not to mention the societal and cultural tics of Deverry and Eldidd, that I can’t imagine another scene in the novel that does so much with so little. Just wonderful.
What Aidan has written is so beautifully articulated that I have nothing to add except to say that it brings home to me my memories of reading the book for the first time. One of the issues with re-reading is that element of knowing what is happening, of bringing my knowledge of subsequent volumes to the early events, so everything I read is colored by my previous experience and my knowledge of how things fit together.
It is therefore a joy to read about a new reader’s discovery of why and how these books are so good.
At the time I first read the book (1986 or 1987) I did not have the reading tools to understand how well crafted it is, how Kerr uses the nested stories to build, how she makes each episode stand somewhat alone in terms of structural narrative yet interweaves those episodes to create ever richer layers.
This is truly a Celtic knotwork of a sequence, an impressive achievement.
Thanks, Kate. As a first time reader, immersed here among a lot of other long-time fans who are following along with this re-read, particularly those who have been contributing to the comments sections of the posts, puts me in an interesting position. Normally when I read a novel, I do so somewhat critically (especially if I’m reading it for review), and pay attention to the author’s use of craft and story construction. This time, I have some flashers alerting me to a lot of the foreshadowing that’s happening in this book, and I’ve been trying to pay extra attention to the wording of dialogue and prophecy, in an attempt to pick up on some of this foreshadowing. But… I’ll be damned if I could point to any place in the book where I feel like this careful attention has given me any further insight into what’s to come, and that’s an absolute testament to Kerr’s ability to construct such a labyrinthine plot. There are some books that are meant to be read once. I think this re-read series, contrasted against my experience as a first time reader, is a testament to how rewarding some series can be a second or third time around. In some ways, I’m envious of those who are having a chance to rediscover this series, which isn’t something I often say!
The emergence of the ‘dark master,’ who has taken advantage of Loddlaen’s weakness and anger, has given me something to hook onto as a familiar story element. Before, in the portions of the novel covered in the first part of this series, I enjoyed the story, but felt like it was sort of floating nebulously along, dealing with the swirling maelstrom of consequences after Nevyn’s selfish decisions, but without an actual goal towards which the main narrative (Jill and Cullyn, I suppose) was moving. The ‘dark master,’ whoever he or she is (I suspect, if I thought hard enough, and caught on to more of that foreshadowing, I could discern the answer), gives a nicely familiar adversary and frame for the narrative. Now that that’s out of the way, I’m able to relax and enjoy Kerr’s masterful handling of the relationships and tangled plotting.
Not much more to go now, but, god damn, am I looking forward to the tumbling avalanche of an ending that I think is coming.