Back when I was a teenager, I spent a lot of time lurking around Elfwood, drinking in the fantasy geekness vibe. Particularly, and in addition to gawping at all the awesome artwork on offer, I’d check out member profiles for book and author recommendations, partly because I was still new to reading adult (that is, non YA) fantasy and wanted some reassurance that I’d been picking the right sort of books, but mostly to try and find new authors. Time and again, a name that cropped up as a must-read was Katharine Kerr, which puzzled me at first, because I’d already tried to read A Time of Exile, the first book of her Westlands cycle, and not been able to get into it. This was before I implemented a firm policy of never starting a series midway through, a lazy attitude attributable in no small measure to the difficulties of reliably finding first volumes of anything in second-hand shops – which, as a tween and teen limited to a pocket-money budget, is how I bought most of my books. But even though I’d already tried and, by that sloppy standard, failed to read Kerr’s works – a single attempt being the usual limit of my effort – I couldn’t ignore the regularity with which I saw her books recommended. Thus it was that I expended some energy to acquire the very first book of her very first Deverry series, Daggerspell, in the hopes that reading from the beginning would solve whatever problems I’d hitherto had.
It did, of course, and from then on, I was absolutely hooked. But what I didn’t realise, way back in 1999/2000, was that the series itself – because even though you can break the entire Deverry collection up into four discreet acts, the story they tell is one continuous, interlocking narrative – was incomplete. Having powered through the first two quartets, I finally found myself at the end of The Fire Dragon (third book, third act) with nowhere else to go. And yet, I had hope, because at that time, circa 2001, there was a release date circulating for the planned final book, such that I have a surprisingly solid memory of walking into a local book store to check when it was due, and noting with some excitement that, according to their system, it was only a few months away. Alas for my younger self, this turned out to be something of an ambitious overstatement: due to illness on the author’s part, it was 2006 before the next volume eventuated. Still, I reread all the other books in preparation, then dove right in, eagerly anticipating closure, only to find that there were three more volumes still to come. Though I picked up the next of these a year or so later, by then it had been so long since I’d fully immersed myself in the world that I couldn’t keep track of what was happening – or rather, of the detailed web of backstory, past lives and history connecting all the characters. And so I made a decision: I’d wait until the final book was out, and then, in one grand gesture, reread the entire series start to finish.
It’s been two years since The Silver Mage, the final Deverry book, was released. Ever since we started packing up the bookshelves for our UK move, I’ve had it in mind that this would be the year to tackle the series in full. I even set the books aside on a special shelf at our new house, certain I’d be wanting them sooner or later. I’d planned for it to be later – the number of new books I’ve acquired since January is truly staggering – but all the while, Deverry has been calling me. When I saw The Silver Mage on sale this week, it felt like an omen: though still lacking a copy of the penultimate novel, The Shadow Isle, I went to the shelf, pulled down Daggerspell and started to read.
That was on Tuesday. It’s now Sunday afternoon, and I’ve just started A Time of Exile, volume five overall. I’ve been hungry for these books, devouring them, and even though I’ve read the early volumes multiple times before, enough time has passed that the story feels new again. Kerr writes beautifully, with an intelligence I can only envy. A Celtic world, Deverry’s richness comes from its reality: humour and hardship feature equally in the characterisation, while the world itself is so perfectly detailed that it can’t help but make me aware of how important research is to a fantasy writer. Magic, politicking, alliances, duty, culture, the minutiae of daily life, historical resonance, religion and local peculiarities are all so lovingly yet naturally rendered that Kerr makes the culmination of 23 years of work look easy – right up until you contemplate doing the same thing, and realise how fiendishly difficult it must be. Small yet crucial details like local accents, the layout of towns given over to specific industries, the daily domestic consequences of war and the problem of communicating over distance are all slipped in, fleshing out the background of every scene without ever resorting to an infodump. And then there’s the characters, so sparsely yet perfectly drawn that it’s like looking at a piece of Japanese calligraphy, with vocal mannerisms, distinguishing physical characteristics and individual quirks investing even those with walk-on parts.
There’s so much I want to say in praise of Deverry – and doubtless I will, once I’ve finished the series this time – but for now, I wanted to make a particular point that has less to do with the series in its own right and more as a commentary on some of the problems extant in the current crop of YA paranormal romance. When I started my current bookblitz, I was looking only to finish a series that’s been dear to me since my early teens; certainly, my motives had nothing to do with finding fodder for the feminism in fantasy argument. And yet, as I re-immersed myself in the main premise of the first four books – that of the ancient dweomerman and former prince, Nevyn, trying to right the chain of wrongs he set in motion four hundred years ago – I couldn’t help but notice that many of the most crucial plot elements are those so popular in current YA paranormal romance. The love triangle, for instance: the whole dilemma Nevyn faces is due to the fact that, once upon a time, he and two other men, Blaen and Gerraent, were in love with the same girl, Brangwen. After a bad decision on Nevyn’s part tragically resulted in the tragic deaths of all three, he was bound to the world, unable to die until he makes things right in their subsequent lives. The reincarnation of lovers is another big YA theme of the day: as Nevyn physically ages, time and again he encounters the souls of Brangwen, Blaen and Gerraent reborn, always together, and always with Brangwen torn between the two men, one – Blaen – her lover, the other – Gerraent – always chasing dangerously after. It’s worth noting, too, that as Kerr takes her realism seriously, Deverry is a society in which thirty is considered a ripe age for a warrior and marriage frequently takes place at fourteen for girls and only slightly older for boys. This means that, as the key players in the drama meet, love, fight and die across various lives – always guided by Nevyn – they are simultaneously adults and teenagers: adults by the measure of their own society, but still teenagers by the standard of our own. Though these reborn souls carry loves and grudges across lives, they don’t remember their past incarnations at all: that is Nevyn’s burden alone, to try and bring Brangwen, who he has loved for four hundred years, to the dweomer, the study of magic, for which she has a powerful natural aptitude.
So, to recap: we have a love triangle, magic, reincarnated lovers, and a rash vow sworn through the ages. Mix any or all of those elements into any number of YA paranormal romances, and what you have is a recipe for angst: eternal male lovers breaking every vow of magic by falling in love with a teenage girl, or two reborn lovers separated by some past wrong struggling desperately to be together, or some other permutation thereof. And it’s not that I don’t enjoy those stories – I do – but I can’t help but applaud Katharine Kerr for breaking a set of narrative tropes which, while still known when she wrote the first quartet between 1986 and 1990, have gone on to become a backbone of popular YA culture. Perhaps this is just the benefit of telling a story that can show the events of multiple incarnations, but not every instance of the trio meeting plays out the same way. Though the romance is there, it’s far from the sole focus of the plot, and deep, true love – while certainly present – is never used as a justification for immoral, foolish or questionable actions. We are never made to feel, for instance, that either Blaen or Gerraent’s violent, jealous protectiveness of Brangwen is in any way justified: it is bad behaviour that all too often leads to terrible things, and one of the major reasons why they all originally died such tragic deaths. Neither does Brangwen take it lying down: in one memorable incarnation as a moon-sworn warrior, a sacred position that requires celibacy, she threatens both men with a solid thrashing in the training yards after they nearly come to blows over her, each being open with his lust despite the fact that, in that instance, wanting her is heresy.
Of most importance, however, is the way the first quartet ends. Having had these past incarnations revealed through flashback chapters, the bulk of the narrative concerns the modern incarnations of Brangwen and Blaen, now Jill and Rhodry, and their many adventures together. Rhodry is noble-born; Jill a commoner and, once more, a warrior. Though disinherited and sent into exile by his jealous elder brother at the end of the first installment, by book three, Rhodry has inherited as the sole heir to a significant territory, with Jill poised to become his wife. But Jill, who loves the freedom of the open road, has finally been brought to the dweomer: she wants to study, an impossibility if she marries the man she loves. And so she leaves him – a painful act, but ultimately necessary, and the denouement of the first quartet: Jill becomes Nevyn’s student, her destiny sealed, not by the love of any one man, but by accepting her innate powers and choosing to learn to control them. It’s a wrenching moment, but we know it’s the right decision, because even though we might accept Nevyn as Jill’s real true love, the point of them leaving together at that moment has absolutely nothing to do with romantic destiny, or youth, or beauty, and everything to do with the core of Jill’s soul – her intelligence, talent, compassion, and her desire to learn. And all the while, she’s a character who, for the best part of the series, has been a teenager: seventeen when she first meets Rhodry, and no older than twenty-one or twenty-two by the end.
And so I can’t help asking: why are so many YA fantasy novels, PR or otherwise, geared towards a conclusion where the hero and heroine ending up together is of greater narrative importance than either one mastering their magic, or bringing peace, or learning what they want to do in life? Why do we end up with stories where actually achieving anything at the end is only a real achievement if the protagonist has someone to kiss? I’m not exempting myself from this problem, mind. But reading Deverry again, it makes me realise that there’s more than one sort of story to tell – and more, that I’m glad of it.