Tuesday, 26 May 2020

Dawnspell by Katharine Kerr

This review is going to use an experimental format. The first part will be the review for people who've not read the book; the second part will be the review for those who have. The first part aims to give an account of the book (and series, since this is book three of a quartet) so that people can judge whether they're on board; the second part is more an accompanying essay with my thoughts, so others can give their thoughts and also maybe have their enjoyment of this book deepened. It may also contain spoilers. Does this make sense? No? Good.

Review Part One

Dawnspell is the third book in the first quarter of the Deverry Cycle, a bleakly glorious and tangled up story about a small group untangle a horrendous snarl of fate that has bound them together over multiple incarnations. In Dawnspell (known in the USA as The Bristling Wood) the main characters are Rhodry and Jill, a pair of young lovers living life as disgraced mercenaries in the pseudo-Gaulish/Welsh feudal kingdom of Deverry. However, greater matters than Rhodry living through the next war overhang them. Jill has a burgeoning magical talent that is calling to her, even if it sometimes scares her; Rhodry is the disinherited heir of a great noble title, struggling to deal with his lack of status and hopeful of reprieve. And both are subjects of attacks from dark magicians that seek to use them as bait to draw out the great dweomerman, Nevyn.

However, a lot of the book deals with Nevyn and other characters plotting to get Rhodry recalled; Rhodry's mysterious half-brother, Salamander, seeking out Rhodry to give him an enchanted ring; Nevyn, Salamander and other dweomermen trying to put an end to the schemes of the dark dweomermen; the other dark dweomermen; and a past incarnation of Rhodry getting tangled up in Deverry's civil wars. I haven't done the list of events justice but rest assured it makes sense to those who've read the first two books providing they're up for a series that grows in complexity.

The result of this diffusion of plot is to make a book that functions best as a character-driven read and fortunately Kerr gives us the characters needed for that to work. Each character is a distinctive voice and mix of virtue and vice, both larger than life and true to life. I've always had an affection for her characters but re-reading shows just how good Kerr is at showing subtle but meaningful character growth. In particular, this is the book where it definitely feels Jill is over any fear of her magical talent.

This is not to say the plot is dull. It's anything but and Kerr is more than ready to put her characters through the wringer to achieve it. Some of her choices aren't my favourite for entertainment value and there's an arguable plothole towards the end, but those are far more subjective than objective. And I do appreciate that while Kerr's willing to get a little dark, she rarely wallows in pain and focuses more on the defiance of said darkness. Meandering start aside, it's got a lively medium tempo, lots of drama, and is fully of tasty little details. It's particularly appealing for its ability to show how the genre can concentrate on very personal stakes while still having a huge, impressively ambitious plot. And speaking of tasty little details, Deverry and the surrounding lands feels crammed full of them. It's a setting that feels real, familiar yet alien, with a truly different point of view.

Thematically, Kerr has a strong but careful touch, with the good stuff about choice, power and love that was in Daggerspell built upon. There's one prolonged arc where magic is used to accomplish rape that lays it out with a heavy hand but that's the exception, not the rule. We also dig deeper into what honour means, and that side of power as well.

All in all, this is a superior piece of fantasy with very few flaws. It's not the easiest to follow, some mightn't enjoy the slightly mangled Celtic setting (it feels Celtic mix rather than Welsh or Gaulish or whatever), and there's some bold choices with the themes that might put some off. But for everyone who's not put off by that and halfway interested, I strongly feel that Dawnspell is a strong continuation of a strong series.

Review Part Two

Oh wow. There's a lot here. Where to start? I'd love to talk about everything it seeds and the writing craft element of it, but that's a bit spoilery to start right next to the main review.

Let's talk about Maddyn aka Rhodry v0.4. I think this is my first re-read of the series after reading all the Civil War chunks and being genuinely excited to see him. From the outset you get the core of his character and that just a nice, admirable, talented guy. Of all the characters in the series your kids could bring home as a potential spouse, Maddo's one of the few where you wouldn't raise your eyebrow once. I love my complex characters, but a straight up good chap is welcome, particularly in the Deverry civil wars where most people are a bit bent out of shape by the situation.

It also means he's the straight man in most of the situations he finds himself in such as discovering the wildfolk and being part of the first Silver Daggers. This is interesting to me because me and Imyril have been lightly batting around what is Rhodry's incarnation arc and if there's one thing I've noticed about Rhodry in the first four books, he's frequently the one that doesn't know what's going on and who needs explanations. It's not a fine character arc, but it does feel like the Rhodry archetype is usually Kerr's go to for "I need someone to ask questions and stumble into situations", at least outside the present day arc. It sort of makes sense; Cullyn's incarnations are too busy playing quasi-antagonist and having Jill's incarnations do it rather ruins the main arc. 

However, I think an arc of sort does appear with Maddyn, something I've sort of alluded to. Blaen (Rhodry v0.1) is more or less there just to serve story needs; give Galrion/Nevyn a potential out with Branigwen (Jill v0.1), highlight the the tragedy of Gerraent's (Cullyn v0.1) actions, show that some Deverry lords do have a real sense of honour and desire for more than bloodshed. There's no arc and he's led like a sheep to the slaughter. Gweran's (Rhodry v0.2) main lesson from this is do unto others before they do unto you. That's the wrong lesson. Ricyn (Rhodry v0.3) again plays the role of nice guy swept up in the rivalry of Nevyn, Jill and Cullyn's souls. Maddyn is the first time we see Rhodry free of that and it lets a personality develop. The core of him is the same - nice, a genuine sense of honour, more than a warrior - but for the first time, it's allied to a strong sense of responsibility. Ricyn shows a little of it but Maddyn takes it to the next level. But even then, Maddyn's still one of nature's followers. Rhodry needs to learn how to lead, to maybe even sometimes be a little selfish and ruthless.

To me, there's a bit of this in Maddyn's winter romance with Belyan and where he realises it wasn't so much a romance, as Belyan wanting another child and seeing a handy man who wouldn't stick around to have one with. Maddyn's a little vexed but he hides it. I don't think he did wrong there, but I think his choice highlights his selflessness in a non-threatening time. Belyan's made some choices for him and one of the big themes is there's a bit of an issue doing that.

That little cameo feeds into quite a few things I see in the book, but let's talk about the choice thing. Let's talk about Perryn's sorcerous rape of Jill. I think it's handled very well both in terms of the drama of the story, and how those involved are treated. Jill is the victim, straight up. Perryn's situation is a little different, as he didn't completely realise he was raping her, as he didn't know what he was doing magical. However, he was still taking choice away from her. Even if he didn't realise quite how, he'd heard the word 'no' often enough before that to have an inkling he should leave her the hell alone. Instead he presses on and for that he's appropriately punished. The whole of his story is a tale for Dragonspell so I'll pick it up there except for a little note on Perryn's Uncle Benoic.

Now, Benoic gets a bit of a bad rap from the other characters and I don't think its entirely fair. He provides for his kin, protects them, enforces the King's law well enough, and makes sure Rhodry doesn't kill Perryn. He may not get Perryn but he's trying to do his best by him. However, because he has a very set idea on how to do best by someone, he gives Perryn little choices. Again, bad. This is something Kerr is clear about in a very consistent manner - men taking choice from women, men taking choice from men, women taking choice from men. Everytime, it is criticised, even if in some small way.

As for the other side of it - something I wish I knew about literary theory is what difference is seen between feminist-fuelled utopia and feminist-fuelled dystopian critique. As Imyril helped me see, this is the book that has the least positive feminist moments, but I'm not sure that means it's the least feminist. To me, it feels like Kerr's getting her Atwood on a little, providing some consequences as an argument for why it matters through Jill's ordeal and subsequent legal status. Belyan's little affair however is a nice little positive moment, a woman enjoying a bit of fun and getting what she wants. Her father sucks air through his teeth and wishes she'd done it different but at the end of the day, what's it to him really? Another pair of hands is to his advantage even if it isn't 100% honourable.

This brings me to Imyril's point about the explosion of the honour myth. If Belyan was a noble daughter she'd be in deep shit, because her honour would then be more valuable than the child and because in her odd way, Belyan has more power than the noble daughter here. I think the weighing of honour isn't just about money, it's about power. Graemyn can lop his enemy's head off with impious disrespect because he's the most powerful person there. The moment Uncle Benoic is there and can start throwing his weight about, all of a sudden Graemyn has to row back and play honourable after all. Honour goes as far as somebody's ability and willingness to enforce it, and as we see with the politicking over Rhodry's recall, the noble-born are very reluctant to let somebody be in a position to enforce it on them. This reminds me of Cullyn telling Jill to never dishonour herself because it'll stick to her. He has to believe that, because the number of people with the ability to enforce his dishonour on him is high. The noble-born? Nyet, good comrade.

Which isn't a good thing. Part of why Rhodry attracts so much support from those who know him is they know he really does believe in it and will enforce it. It is part of what's needed in a ruler. Ironically, as we'll see, the same core of honour that inspires Rhodry's best as a ruler will inspire his worst. I abso-fucking-lutely love it when an author makes one particular quality the heart of a character's good and bad.

What else? Honestly, it breaks my heart to see Rhodry and Jill apart from each other. They're perfect together. But it is necessary for reasons we'll see in Dragonspell. It's fun to watch Blaen and Salamander go about their separate ways some more, and also to see the dweomerfolk in action, setting plans and using scrying for communication. However! That raises a sore point. Are you seriously telling me there wasn't a dweomerfolk along Rhodry's way that couldn't have set things straight? It's not a big deal and I'm only picking on it as I didn't want it to go down that way, but it is a minor hole.

The best and most important parts of the book are in the Civil War segment though, particularly when Nevyn stumbles on Maddyn's idea of a dweomer leader, a man everyone would choose to follow. Nevyn agonising over whether it's right to involve himself that way is his first big breakthrough in his character arc. It's very Pratchettian; I think Nevyn would have got on as well as possible with Granny Weatherwax (i.e. extremely badly). But then, both the dweomer and Lancre witchcraft have their roots in the same occult traditions. The fact he does need Maddyn and Belyan to give him the ideas does make him look like a dolt though, but it can't be helped. Besides, who hasn't known some extremely intelligent people trip over themselves at times?

Other fun little throwouts here are Owaen (Cullyn v.05) earning the dagger in a manner very, very similar to Cullyn; we know he doesn't learn the same lessons as Cullyn but it'll be interesting to track their journeys. I enjoy the Lords of Light's exasperated response to Jill's attempt to kill everything as Gweniver by casting her as the perfect warrior sized male in Branoic (Jill v.05). You can almost imagine them saying "Go on then clever clogs, lets see you solve all your problems with this body now." Spoiler - it did not work.

So far, my statement would be that Daggerspell is the best, and Dawnspell and Darkspell suffer a little because the conceit is a little more muddled, not quite as compelling, and there's no set cast around Rhodry and Jill - but Kerr is not yet skilled enough to compensate for that. But we are about to see how she is in Dragonspell. And I'm looking forwards to writing this review before Imyril can do hers!

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