Back to Deverry. I'd meant to do a really in-depth review of Daggerspell but that turned out to be just a little too much like hard work. What I did get from it though is an appreciation for just how much Kerr is setting up this harsh, bewitching secondary world as both a source of atavistic wonder and as a lens for poking at certain social behaviours. That's going to be influencing a lot of the words in this review. Also an influence is Imyril's own Deverry reviews at https://onemore.org/ which were a bit of an influence on getting back on the horse.
Also on their horses are Rhodry and Jill, or at least so they are after a long meandering set-up featuring dweomer councils and celebratory feasts. And not for very long, because we're set on another preincarnation flashback. I can see it driving a lot of readers berserk as its page after page of nothing happening but establishing mild tension, almost totally reliant on the reader enjoying the atmosphere and characters. I'm all here for that but some books you know you can recommend them to people who won't feel the same love and some you maybe can't. This is maybe can't, but its book 2 in the series so it doesn't matter anyway.
Flashback time. We're now at the start of the Deverry civil wars and a blood feud between the Boars (made greedy and proud by receiving the Falcon's demesne) and the haplessly positioned Wolves puts Gweniver (Jill) on a collision course with would-be King Glyn's warleader/half-brother Dannyn (Cullyn) and everybody else in a five mile radius, because Gwen is bad news.
Something Imyril pointed out in her review is the progression from Lyssa (Jill v0.2) to Gweniver (Jill v0.3) and we had a small natter about how in many ways, the arc of Deverry is about the characters learning the mistakes of their first lives. As Branigwen (Jill v0.1), she just lets people tear her destiny to shreds and when it happens, lacks the mental resilience to fix it. Her lesson is to be less inert and self-destructive. As Lyssa, she sticks the course and things play out. As Gweniver she flips the switch and is completely, stridently in control of her life and to hell with anyone who'll get in the way - no matter the cost. You'll be shocked to hear this is a tragic arc I'm sure.
Frankly, Gwen is an ass. So too are Nevyn and Dannyn mind, and I like them all. It shouldn't be rare and refreshing to meet characters that are both charismatic and sympathetic enough to like, but also prejudiced, boorish and petty enough to be asses, yet here we are. It's intriguing how Ricyn (Rhodry v0.3) is a lot freer of the nonsense (although he still butts heads with Dannyn) than the others. There's two possible explanations here that don't contradict each other. One is from the beginning, Rhodry's preincarnations are generally easy going and empathic, and that continues. The other is that Ricyn isn't noble born and therefore doesn't have his head as stuffed full of impossible honour codes and his own importance. There's a third I just considered too - Gwen has a chip on her shoulder as a woman, Dannyn has one as a bastard, but Ricyn just has none. I think it's interesting and good that in a story that's strongly if quietly feminist, Gwen's rightful grievance for not being taken seriously as a woman is balanced by other rightful grievances about not being taken seriously, and neither is right all of the time.
In any case, it's a fun excursion and it's nice to see Nevyn slowly realising he should be trying to control everything, but I always wished it had come after I'd got my Rhodry and Jill fix in terms of the book's pacing because I never like it as much as I deserve for that reason. I'm also not sure what thematic resonance it has with the next bit of present day action, nor does it help that it's given me a few questions about the worldbuilding. Namely -
How did a hundred year civil war lead to such little cultural change?
More importantly, where the hell do riders come from? Its clear that Ricyn is considered common born here. But it's also clear, here and elsewhere, that spearmen are considered far more common, and being a rider in a warband isn't a dishonourable thing for a noble-born man to do. How does this work? Are riders common or noble? Do they come from farms or noble households? Who's paying for their armour and horses anyway?
Ahem. I'm done.
The rest of Darkspell is taken up by a mundane piece of caravan escorting that gets sucked up into a plot by the dark Dweomer to steal some talisman jewels from the High King and use them to fuck his day up. My only real criticism is that it lacks a great punchy ending, something I'll get to in a little. But first, the dark Dweomer.
The blackhats of the universe are represented by the sorcerer Alastyr and his apprentice Sarcyn. Both are rapists, Alastyr's a paedophile, and their sexuality isn't totally clear but isn't straight. Somewhere Crowley's laughing it up and I'm furious it took me so long to spot that (dunno if its intentional or not, but funny either way). There's plenty of people less impressed by them (and the original writing of them was a fair bit nastier) and the way it plays into certain stereotypes of homosexuality. Given they're the only gays shown in the book it's an understandable point of view.
However, I would say that I still enjoyed their presence in the book. Why? Because the way they seek to bolster their ego through displays of posturing dominance both rang very true as human behaviour and was dramatically satisfying. Likewise, Sarcyn's journey as abuser and victim was enthralling and felt real. Could it have been more sympathetic, or set in a framework showing multiple facets of the gay story? Yes, but ultimately that's not what the Deverry Cycle is about.
The Deverry Cycle (other than awesome storytelling and wild Celtic tales) is about breaking the cycles of mistakes and violence, and about how often the way men treat other things around them as trophies is a huge part of it that needs to get in the bin. It is the original sin and the lesson that Cullyn/Gerraent and Nevyn both need to learn in particular. If Daggerspell hammered home how women were the victims of it, then Darkspell turned its attention to how men do the same thing to men. Now I think about it, I think the inclusion of male on male rape was if not necessary, the next closest thing because that's the biggest hammer in the shop, not just for the victim's terror but the way Rhodry and cousin Blaen react to being reminded they too could be a helpless victim some day. The idea of masculinity being something that renders you invulnerable from such things, and harm in general, is an issue. Again, I understand anyone who looks at the overall set of choices and raises an eyebrow, but to me it makes such total sense in the narrative whole I never really stop to consider it until afterwards.
And now I've spotted how this ties in with the Gwen/Danno/Ricco arc. Dannyan is the victim this time, because in a violent and political court, others see him as a piece to take off the board and as a result, nobody seeks to help him be his better self but rather eggs him on to destruction. He has to take final credit for his bad decisions but in a better environment, Dannyan survives that arc. So too does Gwen and Ricco. And it has to be noted that Gweniver is in many ways hyper-masculine here and that attitude plays into it big style. It's part a celebratory moment as she finally gets her own back on Gerraent, but it's also part a failure. As Nevyn notes at one point, she is quite mad, and revered for it in a time of blood. Part of feminism is raising the question of why should women adopt male social attitudes and why shouldn't men adopt female social attitudes. Kerr's argument is buried under sufficient strata of story to qualify as quiet in my view, but once you dig through to it is a barnstorming sermon.
I will get back to the story in a moment but one final point in response to Imyril - she says that not making Salamander bisexual was a missed opportunity. While I get that in response to the way non-straight men are portrayed here, I'm not sure having the only eloquent knowledgeable man in the boys club atmosphere be non-straight is great for stereotypes either.
Anyway! The story. It is fun, and the main characters get a decent layer of fleshing out here, with Jill's common sense getting a more prominent role and us getting to see Rhodry's dark side. The secondary characters are far better drawn than in Daggerspell too, with Blaen and Salamander my two favourites. Note how it's called out how Rhodry can have a far closer relationship with his cousin Blaen, who he's not in direct competition for anything with, than he does with his own brother. He's mostly bluff alcoholic country lord stereotype, but he gets so many good lines with Rhodry who cares. As for Salamander - he's a straight up scene stealer. I very much struggle to think of many characters in fantasy whose personality is so instantly obvious from their dialogue, and whose dialogue is so distinctively theirs, and who manages to feel so real. If she wasn't Kerr's favourite character to write, she's Kerr-razy.
Oh gods, bad puns, time to wrap this up and sleep.
Where this book falls apart is the long, drawn-out nature of the ending, which went on a long time after it would have stopped in other books with the intent of raising further tension for the next book. For me, that didn't work so great. It also felt like Kerr was trying to make the final showdown more than it was. And honestly, on this re-read, that was kind of the tale of the book. Darkspell is full of compelling scenes, characters and themes, but the narrative doesn't tie them together for me like it should.