This is the first time I’ve read Kerr’s 1986 debut novel, Daggerspell. One major reason for that is that book distribution in Ontario in the 1980s was unreliable, even for books from major publishers like Del Rey and I never saw a copy to read. Pity, because this is a solid little debut.
From the readers’ point of view, the story begins in the 11th century1, when Nevyn, a mage of long experience, senses that someone he has long awaited has been born back in his world again. Unfortunately, this inkling doesn’t come with anything as handy as directions or even a name … but he’s certain that the person for whom he will spend years looking is a woman, a girl, somewhere in the kingdom of Deverry. Why, most of his work has been done for him!2
The girl Nevyn needs to find is young Jill, whose mother has recently died and whose father, Cullyn, a silver dagger — mercenary — is absent more often than he is present. Jill just so happens to have magical potential, but because her fell powers are limited to being able to see and converse with the elemental Wildfolk (sprites rather like Brownies), she does not have any ability to protect herself if she is accused of witchcraft. She has learned to keep her light hidden under a bushel (basket). However, her secret intelligence network does come in handy at various points in the story.
Although Cullyn shows up too late to say goodbye to his lover, Jill’s mother, he at least tries to be a decent father to Jill. Rather than trust her to the charity of strangers, he takes Jill away with him as he looks for suitable employment. She of course wants to learn how to fight too, and does become an accomplished warrior. Yet another of the stabby heroines I keep encountering.
What Nevyn knows, but none of the other players in this story know, is that the events that are going to play out have their roots in Nevyn’s decision, some centuries earlier, to take up the study of magic. Being son of a lord in no way protected him from being cast out for his unseemly interest in the uncanny. This immediate cost was acceptable to Nevyn but he could not think of a way to prevent the consequences for his wife-to-be Brangwen. He could give her up, or drag her into rustic, poverty-stricken exile. Both choices seem unfair to Brangwen and unacceptable to Nevyn. In the end the issue is solved for him when he is forced to leave without her.
Unfortunately, Brangwen’s brother Gerraent is consumed with incestuous desire for Brangwen. Brangwen gives in to her brother, fully intending that the two of them consummate their desperate relationship with a double suicide. This plan goes spectacularly pear-shaped. There are bodies everywhere.
Nevyn, appalled by the aftermath of his decision, solemnly vows that he will never rest until he sets things right — a vow that the gods take at face value. Nevyn’s lifespan stretches into centuries. His vow to never rest may turn out to be a lot more literal than he intended.
Nevyn can be sure that all of the players in the story will be reborn back into his world (again and again). He cannot be sure that the reborn won’t find some creative way to complicate their fates while sabotaging Nevyn’s attempts to make amends for his past offenses.
By the time Nevyn catches up to Brangwen’s current incarnation, her father’s consummate professionalism has won him a place in the retinue of a lord named Rhodry. Rhodry, a noted womanizer, is smitten with the unconventional Jill and she with him. Because Rhodry is aristocracy and Jill, well, isn’t, they cannot formally marry, but, fortunately for them, this society does allow for other accommodations3.
Which would seem to be as happy an ending as a story like this could have, except that the Wyrds of the returned will still play out. Nevyn knows the dancers despite their new forms; he is all too familiar with the dance, if not all the details of this particular variation. What he cannot know is if this time the finale will be a happier one than previous iterations, or if his quest is doomed to continue for centuries more. Or, perhaps, forever.
This book isn’t all frustrated magicians and doomed romances; Jill and Cullyn’s travels together give a pretty good view of what it’s like to be a sell-sword in Deverry. It’s a lot less fun than one might expect from other fiction; not only are Silver Daggers neither respected nor loved, but, since they tend not to be hired unless there is a fight in the offing, their long term career prospects are dismal. Cullyn has survived as long as he has because he is both skilled and cautious, but when he is offered a long-term place in Rhodry’s retinue, he jumps at it.
There’s also some unpleasant feudal politics for those who like that sort of thing, albeit with surprising few infants tossed from high windows4or self-sabotaging, chronic back-stabbing syndrome (Celtic version).
People looking for simple black and white characters should look elsewhere; Kerr gives even her antagonists some degree of nuance in their motivations, while also eschewing the simple-minded, violent nihilism of the grimdark crowd. There are characters who do terrible or petty or terribly petty things in this book but all of them have what seem to them to be good reasons or at least irresistible reasons for acting badly.
I admit I might not be the best person to bring this up but I was a little surprised that, despite living in a fantasy universe where this life’s bad decisions will have consequences that echo through incarnation after incarnation, the certainty of karmic retribution has pretty much no moderating effect on people’s behavior. I suppose it’s related to the way Deverry’s draconian laws don’t seem to prevent poor decisions, although those laws do a bang-up job of making the consequences as bad as possible. Also, common folk may not be aware of the whole reincarnation thing (knowledge which may be limited to the mages). That suggests that, to the extent that this world is analogous to ours, Ashoka’s missionaries to the West didn’t enjoy any more success in this version of the world than in ours.
While the settings are very different, the way the entanglement across incarnations worked made me wonder if an examination of David Mitchell’s or Kim Stanley Robinson’s bookshelves would turn up a copy of this novel. Or, given some similarities to Ogiwara’s Dragon Sword and Wind Child, maybe they are all drawing on a tradition of which I know nothing, which on reflection would be where I would put my money.
There was one minor detail that, if it was ever clarified, I overlooked: do we know if the Brangwen-Nevyn-Gerraent train-wreck is actually the beginning of the story, or did Nevyn get sucked into a mess whose roots were much deeper than he knew? It seems to me there’s at least the potential for Wyrd entanglements to persist for millennia. Maybe longer.
I was bit nervous going in, because I knew that I have an irrational antipathy towards any fiction that’s even vaguely Celtic-flavoured. I also have one to any fiction that mentions role-playing games in the acknowledgment. I was worried that Kerr would suffer for bad books written by other authors. As it turned out, I need not have worried; this was interesting enough that my own issues didn’t intrude.
1: Or rather, an 11th century, as this is clearly alternate history.
2: I’m not being sarcastic; there’s a set of characters tied together by fate and for them to recapitulate and embellish their stories with each other, they need to be in the same region. And since Nevyn is in Deverry….
3: Rhodry’s treatment of past lovers is at best spotty, but he is very aware that Cullyn can gut Rhodry like a cod if Rhodry’s treatment of Jill in any way upsets Jill.
4: My exgf once turned to me — just after watching a show about Scotland’s history wherein a potential dynasty conflict was resolved with a public infanticide — to admit that until then, she’d assumed my comments about Scottish history were hyperbole.