I just finished re-reading Katherine Kerr’s first Deverry book, Daggerspell. Which is a damn good story with a lot more twist than the majority of modern fantasy can cough up with. And SPOILERALERT, there’s a bunch of rape and incest in the story. Which earns it the occasional low-star review from people who feel triggered at uncomfortable plotlines. I will be happy to see writers and filmmakers branch out into more threats to women in their plots than rape but let me make this perfectly clear: If your agenda is to end all use of rape as a plot device in stories then you are hushing up rape and you and I are not allies.
Daggerspell is the first of a whopping 15 book fantasy series based on the premise of reincarnation and the fulfillment and breach(!) of predesigned destinies. Think Celtic in flavor rather than Hindu or Buddhism for example. The story takes place in Deverry, a Welsh-like land where kings are called Gwerbrets, holds are duns, destinies are Wyrds and so on. A huge part of my enjoyment in reading this book stems entirely from the language.
A group of people whose destinies are tangled up with each other cross, through a series of choices and happenstance the destiny of a woman marked for the dweomer (magic). Now these souls are doomed to be thrown back together in life after life as those destinies are slowly untangled. I. e. if you did something bad in your previous life and you are presented with a similar choice in the next life you are supposed to do better this time around or get to do it again in the next cycle. Of course, nobody gets to remember their previous lives except in weird intuitive flashes.
Reincarnation stories often come across as terribly muddied and confusing and the first time Kerr breaks off her main story, to sweep the reader back in time to a previous cycle I bet every one of her readers had the same face:
But the flashbacks into previous cycles are all on point with the main plot and rarely longwinded and it allows her to tell some pretty bloody ended stories with her main characters without actually bumping them off. So there’s that.
Kerr sets a fine pace in her story despite the occasional jumps to other cycles and her characters feel like they’ve all stepped straight out of a bard song. For good and ill.
In those days, down on the Eldidd coast stretched wild meadows, crisscrossed by tiny streams, where what farmers there were pastured their cattle without bothering to lay claim to the land. The meadows were a good place for an herbman to find new stock, and old Nevyn went there frequently. He was a shabby man, with a shock of white hair that always needed combing, and dirty brown clothes that always needed mending, but there was something about the look in his ice-blue eyes that commanded respect, even from the noble-born lords. Everyone who met him remarked on his vigor, too, that even though his face was as wrinkled as old leather and his hands dark with frog spots, he strode around like a young prince. He traveled long miles on horseback with a mule behind him, as he tended the ills of the various poor folk in Eldidd province. A marvel he is, the farmers all said, a marvel and a half considering he must be near eighty. None knew the true marvel, that he was well over four hundred years old, and the greatest master of the dweomer that the kingdom had ever known.
That particular summer morning, Nevyn was out in the meadows to gather comfrey root, and the glove-finger white flowers danced on the skinny stems as he dug up the plants with a silver spade. The sun was so hot that he sat back on his heels for a bit of a rest and wiped his face on the old rag that passed for a handkerchief. It was then that he saw the omen. Out in the meadow, two larks broke cover with a heartbreaking beauty of song that was a battle cry. Two males swept up, circling and chasing each other. Yet even as they fought, the female who was their prize rose from the grass and flew indifferently away. With a cold clutch of dweomer knowledge, Nevyn knew that soon he would be watching two men fight over a woman that neither could rightfully have.
She had been reborn.
Somewhere in the kingdom, she was a new babe, lying in her exhausted mother’s arms. Dimly he saw it in vision: the pretty young mother’s face, bathed in sweat from the birth but smiling at the babe at her breast. When the Vision faded, he jumped to his feet in sheer excitement. The Lords of Wyrd had been kind. This time they were sending him a warning that somewhere she was waiting for him to bring her to the dweomer, somewhere in the vast expanse of the kingdom of Deverry.
From Daggerspell, Katherine Kerr, 1986.
Daggerspell is set in a fantasy world and society leaning heavily on pre-medieval European Celtic tribes. (Incidentally, you’d be surprised to look up just how far the Celts roamed in Europe. They were everywhere at one point.) Deverry comes across as a wet, muddy sort of place (Wales) with bar wenches and brawly fella’s (Wales) who speak with a funny lilt and colorful curses (Wales).
The story itself unwinds a lot like many a Norse saga does (not Wales) with the same sort of warm humor and blase attitude to violence and assault. Felt a lot like coming home (also not Wales).
But that brings up a point worth mentioning about the rape and incest plots that turn up in this book. You come across stories like that in old Norse tales too where rape is referred to as an everyday thing that women just have to put up with. And isn’t that just shocking. Wow, back then, eh? Of course be a woman in the wrong place and the wrong situation today and nothing’s changed in that regards.
Rape, as a plot or device is overused as a means to threaten a female character EXCEPT in stories with a setting in which women live under a constant threat of rape.
Bearing in mind that the book is written in 1986 (published by Del Rey) the character gallery can seem a little tropey. On the other hand, I doubt they were at the time. Jill, the main female character, however, does disappoint here and there in her different incarnations as a leaf in the wind, acted upon rather than acting herself. But harping on this seems as fair as railing at Lord of The Rings for having a messy plot line. Which it does, don’t start with me.
It is, however, lovely to see a Merlin character who is much more of a real person than he usually is portrayed as and the magic system in the book is very compelling.
Finally, I’m happy to declare this a fantasy book that does include elves and dwarves. I don’t know who decided to campaign against these wonderful peoples but whoever you are, you suck.
So overall I’m giving this book 4 pointy ears out of 5 and will be (re)reading more of the series as I pick them up.