Sunday, 24 May 2020

Darkspell by Katharine Kerr

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 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.


  1. I think this was the first reread where I acknowledged that Dannyn is badly let down in Darkspell. Yes, he's an asshat who goes through some spectacular mental contortions to justify what he wants to do and knows he shouldn't, but it really stood out for me that Nevyn turns his back (and the likes of Saddar are actively trying to push him to fail). Everyone (except Ricco) in this timeline is a hot mess (and YES, so many chips on so many shoulders!)... but I have such a soft spot for it.

    On riders vs spearmen: I get the impression the distinction is skilled vs unskilled martial labour, but I think they're primarily all commonborn, aren't they? Do we see any noble riders other than captains, bastard sons and/or dishonoured nobles turned mercenaries? I don't recall...

    In my head at least, the spearmen who serve the nobleborn are temporary levies, pulled from their day jobs to serve in a feud. And the spearmen who (notionally) protect caravans, seem to be any man who's willing to walk a long way and stand guard at night with a staff in his hand (ooh er missus).

    Expectations of spearmen are set correspondingly low: hence caravans hiring silver daggers if they're genuinely expecting trouble (and working a route that's lucrative enough to cover the risk), and the nobleborn always being a bit surprised if the spearmen don't crack in the face of a charge. I think it's Cullyn (maybe, or maybe it Dannyn or even Caradoc in Dawnspell) who acknowledges that well-drilled spearmen with nerve are pretty damn dangerous, but... they seem to be fairly rare. Which I guess isn't surprising given that all the riders look down on them.

    Being selected for the warband is a promotion (if you're a spearman) - we see some try out for the warband in Daggerspell - and then your lord looks after your welfare; you get a horse and a shirt (and maybe even armour / sword? Although I think that's a big maybe, and the question of where you get your first sword is a damn good one. Can you imagine what the likes of Lord Nedd would be able to give you? I know Cerrgonney lords are poorer than most, but still...). I'm not sure spearmen get anything but fed whilst on campaign.

    I half suspect, given the culture and period, that there's some unacknowledged law that obliges the commonborn to have a sword or spear - much like old English law and bows.

    ...but I do love kicking the world building this hard :)

    I take your counter-point on Salamander being bi but bear with me while I push it a bit further. Elves have less toxic masculinity and more fluid gender roles, which is why Salamander is so different to Deverrian men - so I'd counter counter that - given the cultural context (and the number of people who historically died in the Burning) - you could make a case for 'most Elves are bi', removing the personal exceptionalism and turning it into one of the many ways the two cultures differ. And when we do eventually meet someone who could loosely be termed bi, they're rather more exceptional than Salamander ;)

    In the end, I take Kerr at her word that she intended no commentary on being gay with the dark dweomerfolk. She wasn't exactly the most likely candidate to be actively trying to consider (let alone design) sexually diverse secondary worlds at the time of writing. So it's all a bit of a thought experiment and a good-natured 'what if' pub debate (at least, I'm approaching it in that vein, although conscious that's always less obvious in comments on the interwebs ;)

    1. Sometimes everybody being a hot mess is what's needed to make something a favourite, right ;)

      Before I go on - is there a theory that Rhodry is the messiest version of his incarnations? Most of them are fairly sane, gentle people by the standards of Deverry warriors, and usually dependable as hell too. Rhodry seems to be the most trouble besotted. But maybe Rhodry's arc is he can't just sit there being nice and honourable and having a laugh while everybody else is making a mess of things, he's got to take responsibility too? A lesson for all the sweet feckless men in the world letting the bastards do their thing?

      Riders/Spearmen - Both Caradoc and Cullyn acknowledge at various points that well trained and equipped spearmen are a pain (Caradoc in Dawnspell, Cullyn in Dragonspell) but since you're right that they do seem to be levies, they're rarely well trained enough.

      I think you're right that we're told to believe they're all common born-ish - Cullyn getting in as a kitchen maid's son seems to be unusually low on the common totem pole, but they're all common save for disgraced nobles. Perryn is encouraged to join a warband though as a landless younger son, and that makes me think what are all the landless younger sons doing? I think it's implied Rhodry's fate was a warband before he got his rahn. What about the children of landless younger sons? Are they still noble? Do they just sit around? Logically they'd be prime warband fodder but if some were noble and some were common, what would a Rider be overall? And if there's a mixed status, what happens when Riders have sons who have sons who have sons? Not that we see much beyond them getting kitchen maids pregnant, but some of them have to get married. But does that mean them quitting?

      I kinda annoy myself for being all "where's the realism' as too much realism is getting in fantasy, but it is an interest hole to me! The existence of a knightly class i.e. a semi-noble middle class that can afford most of their own war-gear makes sense. But isn't there. Maybe Deverry isn't big enough? I suspect the answer that fine grained social distinctions simply aren't important to Kerr's story.

      Which, when you get down to it, is also true of sexual diversity. There as far as the story needs it and no further. Which I think chimes with what you say about her not being the most likely candidate? It would have been interesting to see elves are mostly bi, although again, you're then into masculinity stereotypes and racial stereotypes... I guess there's just no perfect answers here. And, spoilers for anybody else reading this, but doesn't Rhoddo end up if not exactly bi, then not exactly straight either? Which is both a little good and a little awkward in terms of the stereotypes. I guess ultimately it would be less of a talking point if Kerr had showed more examples of masculinity rebelling against the Boys Club type she shows so well, but then again, that's not so much the story. Never enough pages to have it all - and maybe showing things in a relatively monolithic way was needed for strength of theme.

    2. I'm taking a moment to giggle at the fact that 15 BOOKS still wasn't enough pages to have it all (and it wasn't, you're right) - and I'm curious to read the new trilogy, which does appear to reflect massive social changes so has room for all sorts of modern angles on these topics :)

      I am now completely intrigued by the question of rider's children and landless younger sons (...about which I'll say little more because my brain headed straight into spoilers for the Westlands Cycle and you and I may not be the only people reading these comments). Can you retire from the warband? I mean, you have to be able to on grounds of age if nothing else - Cullyn is considered 'ancient' for a fighting man... in his mid-thirties. I don't imagine there's a pension though.

      And you're right: not enough pages to chase down every detail, but you can bet I'll be reading the rest of the sequence extra closely for hints on this topic now ;)

      Coming back to Rhodry: he definitely slides from well-adjusted charming nobleman who doesn't really like violence (Blaen) to death-obsessed berserker (Rhodry), doesn't he? So many of his incarnations are lovely musical young men (Blaen, Ricco, Maddo, Maer, Meddry all leap to mind). I shall now mull character arcs and Wyrd and existing to serve as a warning to others (so true in so many ways)... I remain amused by the wry blogger who labelled the Deverry sequence as the erotic adventures of Rhodry Maelwaedd, but let's leave that one out there until we get to the right point of the sequence ;)

    3. I think the implication from Cullyn's closing words to Jill is that so few riders live to his age it's not really an issue, but that feels pretty unrealistic.