The Deverry Readalong continues apace, and February saw me reading Darkspell for the first time. Things get darker and more dangerous, both in the past, the present and presumably in the future, for our Wyrd-bound heroes – and I’m here for all of it.
A royal’s freedom, the gift of magic and stolen power…
Exiled from his brother’s court, Lord Rhodry has found a life for himself on the road with wandering mercenaries, the Silver Daggers. The going is hard, but Jill, a young master of sword and magic, is with him. As they journey along Deverry’s roads, feelings between warrior and lord deepen.
But before love can truly blossom, Jill and Rhodry are drawn into a web of enchantment and mortal danger. The Great Stone of the West, a magical jewel that guides the conscience of kings, has been stolen. When Jill stumbles across the Stone, she draws the attention of the Dark Brotherhood – evil sorcerers who will hunt her with the darkest magics and messengers of death.
OK, there’s a lot to unpack in a book (a series) with such an epic story as this one (these ones?), so let’s break this down a bit.
The branched timelines continue, with part of this story focusing on another set of intertwined past lives for our heroes, building on the foundation laid in Daggerspell. Here, we get to meet Gweniver, who is Brangwen reborn as a vengeful warrior-priestess, and devotee of the darker, hidden aspect of the mother goddess. And here’s where I really began falling in love with the mythology of this world, all Wyrd aside. The maiden, the mother and the crone are all name-checked in Gwen’s story, but it’s the fourth face of the Goddess, the one that no one (read: men) dares to speak of or even truly remember well enough to believe in: her warrior aspect. The one who wields a sword and will cut down anyone who crosses her. A goddess who doesn’t rely on the relevance of men to be powerful.
Who could imagine such a thing?! etc.
I bloody love it.
I love it, and not just for the deeper dive into Deverry’s mythology and religion. I love it because all of that gives us Gweniver, a woman whose heart and mind are so full of rage and bloodlust that it drives her all the way down her violent path through life, right to its end. She cares nothing for being forced into marriage, or to submit to any man. She finds fulfillment on the battlefield, where she can indulge all that deep-seated fury with sword in hand.
Hmm. I wonder why this incarnation of Brangwen could possibly be so furious with the whole world? WHY INDEED.
But what’s most interesting about Gweniver is that her greatest strength is also her biggest flaw. She is committed beyond reason, beyond a care for almost anyone else, to serving her Goddess. Yes, it protects her (physically and politically) from harm, or at least offers her the means to exact vengeance when that protection fails – but that very same blessing leads to her death, and even knowing this doesn’t cause her to doubt. It’s painfully clear that with today’s understanding of mental health, there are perhaps plenty of explanations for Gwen’s behaviour, and why she is the way she is. Here, however, we have ‘madness’ and little else.
Something that this part of the story reminded me of, as well, is that regardless of which men are significant throughout this character’s lives, it is ultimately her story we’re being told. From the very beginning, it is the soul of Brangwen we’re introduced to first, and throughout her lives she is central to every tangle of Wyrd, every story we’re told. She’s always different, but that much is always the same: this is about saving her soul, but we’re continually reminded that the act of saving it is for her to complete. It’s such a refreshing balm to every hero’s tale, where the women are the flawless and untouchable (and boring) damsels who must be saved, that I just can’t help appreciating it.
Moving on, let’s talk about the ‘current’ timeline a bit, because oh boy, there is some dark shit going on here.
Nevyn is still on the trail of the sorcerer who evaded him at the end of Daggerspell, while Jill discovers a magical artifact that this sorcerer, Alastyr, will kill to recover, and Rhodry struggles to adapt to life as a Silver Dagger – and manages to get himself kidnapped and has to be ransomed by Jill. Oops.
Brevity at the poor lad’s mishap aside, though, there’s a lot to appreciate about how Jill and Rhodry’s new life on the road is going for them. Like she had with Cullyn, Jill finds herself having to manage Rhodry’s moods – and his drinking – when the occasion calls for saving their coins or keeping a level head. Normally this would result in me having little sympathy for a man who can’t put his Big Boy pants on and deal with his troubles, but with Rhodry it’s easier to sympathise. He’s a man born to nobility who finds himself having to live a rough life – but even given how much worse the alternative would have been, I can’t blame him for having difficulty getting used to it. He is angry, not so much at his present circumstances but at the reason why he’s on the long road to begin with. His brother, Rhys, continues to be an enormous asshole about the whole thing – but thankfully from a distance this time.
(I’m a bit less patient with Rhodry’s knee-jerk jealous reaction to the notion of Jill being away from him for any length of time, however. Get it together, Rhoddo, she is not automatically going to turn around and cheat on you.)
Elsewhere, there’s a deepening family saga when Rhodry’s biological father discovers he has ANOTHER son out there somewhere, born to a mortal woman?! (Yes, this does in fact tell you quite a bit about Devaberiel. Sigh.)
Hats off to Lovyan for very deftly and politely telling her surprise visitor where to go and how far, however. She has no time for her Elvish babydaddy’s nonsense, and I love her for it.
But there is in fact a point to his sudden desire to find Rhodry, even if it is a bit dubiously Magical MacGuffin-centric? What the heck is that ring all about and why do I feel like it’s going to become Bad News?
Anyway! Let’s also talk about our bad guys for a bit – because here is where I have some criticism of the author’s characterisation and plotting decisions.
Simply put: I am not here for The Queer Characters As The Villains. I am even less present for The Queer Villain’s ‘Redemption’ Arc. To say nothing of the apparent fatphobia employed by said villains when dealing with another character. Because they were obviously not despicable enough, they’ve got to insult someone’s appearance to prove it?
This is the part of the book that I discussed most heavily with a co-reader who’s familiar with this series already, because I am honestly having trouble accepting the fact that this book went through an apparently significant rewrite, only to learn that most of this content survived the cut. (We narrowed the difference down to the on-page existence/gender-flipping of a minor character.)
It’s the goddamned twenty-first century, people. This is a secondary-world fantasy. It can be written ANY WAY THE AUTHOR LIKES.
Get over this bullshit.
Queer representation issues aside … there is still a lot that I do appreciate about this story and where it might be going. I have a lot of questions, and I’m developing some healthy fears about the survival odds for our heroes. Will Nevyn live to see evil defeated? Will Jill find a way to embrace her Wyrd and keep her man? Will Rhodry bring down his abominably childish brother and return to his rightful station? Will Salamander finally wander his way properly into his half-brother’s life and hand over the all-important ring as promised?
And just WHAT is the real deal with the Brotherhood? Will the threat they represent hold steady or will this political structure implode first? THERE IS SO MUCH GOING ON BEHIND THOSE SCENES. I can’t wait to dig deeper into it all.
Can I start reading Dawnspell yet?