Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Daggerspell by Katherine Kerr #review

Title: Daggerspell
Author: Katherine Kerr
Publisher: Spectra, 1993

Katherine Kerr’s Deverry Cycle probably had a lot more influence on my writing than I’ve previously considered. This is an epic saga of swords and sorcery that employs many of the classic hallmarks but also subverts them (for instance the “damsel” is perfectly capable of showing the boys up). The basic premise is based on how entangled the fates of individuals are so that each time they are reborn, they must work through unresolved issues.

The story begins with young lord Galrion who is drawn to magic – or dweomer as Kerr calls it – but as a nobleman he is also expected to marry the right girl to further his family’s interests. But events go horribly wrong and Galrion swears to the gods that he will not rest until he has set the great wrongs right. The gods grant him that wish and that is how he takes on the persona of a travelling “herbman” and dweomer master who goes by the name Nevyn (or “no one” – the meaning of the name). Nevyn is a wandering Jew-type character who is fated to live indefinitely until he succeeds at his task.

The cruellest twist of wyrd is that Nevyn is doomed not to be romantically reunited with the woman he loves, and must watch from the sidelines as Jill hooks up with pretty-boy Rohdry, who appears to have a Chosen One type prophecy hanging over his head. The latter makes him a target for a sinister dark dweomer master who does his best to manipulate others to do his dirty work and remove Rhodry from the playing field.

This is book #1. There are 15 books in the cycle. I am well aware of the fact that once I can track down copies that I’ll have a lot of reading ahead of me.

It’s always fun to return to a book that was read many years before and see how my opinion of it shifts based on my current mindset. I was still very much Christian when I first read Daggerspell in my early teens. Nevyn’s use of pentagrams and his calling up elemental spirits and astral travelling really bothered me. Now, of course, I’ve outgrown my childhood prejudices about esoteric matters, and I don’t have a problem with these aspects of the story. I do, however, pick up on Kerr’s good/evil, white/black dualism. Granted her conception of good vs. evil is not completely heavy handed as, say, Tolkien, but the bias is very much there.

The prose itself is solid, and the world-building vivid, but Kerr does employ multiple points of view – and sometimes those shifts do jump around a bit. Not enough to totally annoy me, but I did feel the very last viewpoint character – and a totally new one at that, who only gets introduced at the end – does feel a bit like a forced foreshadowing for the next book. We already have enough hints – don’t ruin the surprise already. Or at least that’s my feeling on the matter.

Jill and Rhodry, we must remember, are still in their late teens, so they are bursting with hormones and their behaviour is completely in line with their characters. They are impulsive, quick to take offense and intense in their display of emotions. This might annoy some readers who’d prefer more mature behaviour, but I found this endearing (indulge an old bag, will you?). There wouldn’t be much of a story otherwise.

A word on gender inequalities – part of this novel’s underlying theme includes strong female characters who take back their power from a traditionally male-dominated culture. Mention must be made of Lovyan, Rhodry’s mother, whose story arc tells of a strong woman who has found ways to empower herself despite restrictive cultural norms. The star of the show, of course, is Jill, who eschews standard roles. She rides horses and can fight with a sword and brawl as well, if not better than most men thanks to her father, Cullyn, who gave her an unconventional upbringing.

The fact that Jill was capable and empowered in a man’s world made her incredibly appealing to me all those years ago, and for that for that very reason makes me appreciate her now. I feel her betrayal keenly when her father essentially sells her out to Rhodry as his mistress, knowing full well that they will never marry.

Yet, when the time comes, Jill can act where others hold back. Her bravery is refreshing, as well as her whole-hearted passion for living.

Daggerspell has stood the test of time and though I’ve heard mixed reports about the cycle of novels as a whole, I’m keen to dig in and see how the other books I’ve read have fared.

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