Posts Tagged ‘Deverry’

Not so long ago, there was something of a furor concerning World Book Night’s¬†shabby treatment of genre novels, when SFF author Stephen Hunt reacted passionately to their absence from the event. Naturally, this is an issue near and dear to my heart, so when my Twitter feed presented me with an opportunity to nominate my own top ten books for the next WBN, I decided to take it. After all, what better way to correct the previous year’s imbalance than by throwing some SFF titles into the mix? After several minutes of faffing about, registering with the site and setting up a profile, I finally found myself in a position to suggest some books – or at least, I would have done, if not for the fact that clicking through to the requisite page produced the following unhelpful screen:

Though able to add favourite books to my personal profile, I’m apparently unable to suggest them to the site. Which is annoying, because so far, the genre representation is pretty slim. But that’s not the reason why I sat down to blog this post; or at least, it’s not the full reason. Because when I went to add a couple of titles to my profile list (an irritating process in its own right), I found myself automatically selecting, not my favourite books, but standalone favourites. Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry cycle, for instance, is fifteen books long: trying to add her to my list in any coherent fashion would have meant scrolling through more than thirty titles – each book having been printed in multiple additions – that weren’t presented in chronological order. Even assuming the site’s compliance, trying to suggest them as part of my personal top ten would have been numerically impossible without an option to nominate the whole¬†series¬†in one go, the way one might suggest The Lord of the Rings¬†singly rather than as three separate works.

Which made me wonder: how many times have I structured a list of favourite books to fit this principle, rather than in accordance with my actual preferences – and more, how many other readers must find themselves doing the exact same thing? Given its weighty history, most people, regardless of their tastes and preferences, are entirely capable of acknowledging Tolkien’s seminal trilogy to be a single, coherent story; so why, when it comes to every subsequent series, are we still thinking in terms of individual volumes? Even five years ago, there might have been something to the argument that the The Lord of the Rings counts as a single book only because it’s physically been printed as a single book edition, but in this day and age of ebooks, where I could potentially fit my entirely library of fantasy series onto a Kindle or iPad, why should such distinctions matter? Obviously, the breakdown of a series into its constituent editions is still significant: particular volumes might be preferred to others, for instance, or later works castigated where the earlier were praised, to say nothing of the fact that, in many instances, there are solid reasons why we might want to nominate or discuss a particular book in isolation from its siblings. But when it comes to lists that are meant to describe the tastes of the general public – when we’re talking about our favourite stories and authors – surely being able to discuss ¬†a particular series as a whole, discreet narrative rather than as a string of individual works has merit as an approach?

And then consider the obvious: that genre stories are far more likely than mainstream literary fiction to be constructed across multiple novels. From crime and mystery serials to multi-volume fantasy epics, it only takes a glance at the shelves of a library, bookshop or geekish living room to gauge the scope of things. It’s like the problem I have whenever I try to recommend that someone read the works of Terry Pratchett, whose Discworld series is now 38 books long. The conversation usually goes like this:

Me: You should read the Discworld books – they’re amazing, particularly the most recent ones!

Person: Great! Which one’s your favourite?

Me: Night Watch, definitely.

Person: OK, I’ll read that one.

Me: But you can’t start with Night Watch; all the best jokes are about characters from other books. It wouldn’t make any sense. You have to start with an earlier one.

Person: But I thought you said they weren’t as good?

Me: They’re still great books; it’s just that the later ones are even better.

Person: Where should I start, then?

Me: Well, if you just want to try the Vimes books – he’s the protagonist of Night Watch – then start with Guards! Guards! and work your way forwards through Men at Arms, Feet of Clay, Jingo¬†and The Fifth Elephant. He has cameos in other books, but those are the most important ones.

Person: All right, but what if I want to read the whole series, right from the start? How many books are there?

Me: About forty.

Person: *faints*

In fairness, Discworld – much like Pratchett himself – is something of a special case. Many of the books work as standalone volumes, or as discreet series-within-a-series, so that one need only read four or five novels to get the full adventures of a particular character (cameos notwithstanding). But in the case of something like Kerr’s Deverry cycle, or ¬†George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire – which, despite being incomplete, has recently been adapted by HBO as the TV series¬†A Game of Thrones – there would be little point in listing just one book of either series, even the first or best, as a favourite novel. And so I wonder: when people contribute to lists of their favourite stories, lists which are publicised, discussed and dissected in their role as seemingly reasonable cross-sections of the reading public’s tastes, how often are SFF and genre works omitted, not because they aren’t loved, but because of the inherent extra difficulty in nominating series? And how many journalists, librarians, booksellers and other interested parties have, when setting out the structure and parameters of such lists, have instinctively done so with a mind only to individual books, rather than whole series?

To be clear, I’m not trying to suggest that the only reason genre books are absent from places like the World Books Night list is because we’re more hesitant to nominate serial titles: personal taste, social bias and the perceived preferences of others are all significant factors. But I do think it must make some difference – not just to the titles we nominate, but to the books we actively¬†consider nominating –¬†¬†if our automatic assumption is that series somehow don’t fit with the mood of such lists; if we’re wary of cluttering them up with multiple titles written by the same author, or if we’d rather represent a broader spectrum of our tastes by listing the single works of many authors instead of the complete works of one. Either way, if we’re going to continue talking about the tastes of the reading public, then considering whether a primary means of assessing those tastes might be subconsciously biased towards standalone novels – and, by inference, to non-genre novels – seems like an important step to take.

ETA: I just checked the WBN page again, and the earlier problem has vanished: my personal favourites and the site favourites have now linked up. The search function is still glitchy as hell, though, and half the time, typing in a valid name or title produces no results. Sigh.

As has been mentioned previously, I took it upon myself last month to reread all fifteen volumes of Katharine Kerr’s excellent Deverry series – or rather, to reread the first thirteen books in preparation for broaching the final two. Reaching the end of a story you’ve been following since adolescence is always a precarious act: for any number of reasons, the potential for betrayal and disappointment is enormous. I won’t lie, internets. I was nervous. But despite those fears, the ending made me cry, the plot was skillfully was closed out, and I walked away with a feeling of profound satisfaction. Roald Dahl once wrote that “no book ever ends when it’s full of your friends”, and I’ve never felt this to be truer than in the case of Deverry, if only because the entire premise is one of reincarnated characters – as long as they keep being born, their stories will always continue. In final paragraphs appended to the glossaries and pronunciation guides of almost every volume, as well as in quick asides throughout the narrative proper, Katharine Kerr has adopted the voice of Cadda Cerrmor (as the last book names her) – a writer inhabiting modern-day Deverry who she credits as the ‘real’ author. It’s a small detail, but one which lends a wonderful balance to things. Through all its twisting timelines, the series is as much about the history of Deverry itself as it is the myriad lives of the characters, and by providing a glimpse of that country’s future, Kerr has imbued it, not just with a sense of lineage, but potentiality.

In that sense, there’s tremendous significance in the small details which help to close out the series. Though Branna’s invention of the spinning wheel and Neb’s discovery of germs might seem like small things when placed alongside dragons and the end of the Horsekin war, we still experience a little frisson of excitement on hearing them mentioned: ¬†a recognition of the seeds of modernity, and an unshakable sense that Deverry is one of those rare worlds which keeps on turning even in the absence of a reader. Though there are battles, false goddesses and magic aplenty in Kerr’s series, we’re never fooled into thinking that the fate of all Deverry hangs on any one of them – or rather, if it does, then not in the traditional way.

The stock premise of epic fantasy – defeating the Dark Lord to save the kingdom – has always sat awkwardly with me, if only because it so often comes to feel as though the world in question only exists as a setting for that one battle, and not as a realm in its own right. Tolkien, as always, gets something of a free pass for having invented the trope, but even in his case, the whole point of Middle Earth’s elaborate backstory is that everything has already happened: the climactic battle with Sauron is literally the last hurrah of a world in decline, a handover between a magical, imagined past and our own, human future. But where Tolkien was fully cognisant of the shape of his own story, many subsequent authors copied his pattern without, perhaps, a full appreciation for its consequences. Ultimate confrontations with ancient evil are fine, to be sure, but they don’t lend much to the idea of a world which, left to its own devices, will just be a world: one where good and evil are intermingled in everyday human activity, rather than being the sole province of warring gods and their acolytes.

The different cultures and races present in Deverry, while seemingly cast in traditional molds – humans, elves, dwarves, dragons, shapeshifters and hordes – are each dealt with in respectful, original ways. Though the elves have long since lost their fabled cities and are reduced to living as nomadic plainsdwellers, Kerr doesn’t fall into the trap of making their previous civilisation a perfect one, even though we still mourn its loss. Rigidly maintained caste systems and a fearsome body of magician-priests stood side by side with beautiful architecture and advanced magics, contrasting sharply with the comparative egalitarianism of their nomadic¬†descendants. Though an elven royal family has been maintained even down the long years of exile, it has never held any special power, being more a ceremonial acknowledgement than anything else. As the elves grow settled again, reuniting with their lost colonies and living openly alongside humankind, there’s a sense of genuine loss: not just for the end of an era, but in the slow, encroaching return to their old monarchy, as Prince Dar becomes increasingly important in response to the Deverrian respect for kings.

At the other end of the scale, the Horsekin and Gel da’Thae, while cast as the villains both historically and in the more present struggles, are never reduced to the role of¬†bogymen. Though undeniably savage in parts, their culture is whole and internally consistent, and as much damaged by their past actions in some respects as was the elven civilisation they destroyed. The bard Meer is a beautiful example of this, not only because he’s a genuinely compelling character, but because his blind devotion to false ¬†lore confronts us with the damage that results when knowledge is lost or destroyed, or when actions are undertaken in ignorance. To a greater or lesser extent, all the cultures of Deverry suffer this particular affliction. Records have been lost, oral traditions have become mired in half-truth, and the steadfast commitment of one character or another to their chosen way of life is always threatened when they encounter other cultures. Just as the shapeshifting Drwgi contrast the dwarves both elementally and in terms of identity, so too do the differing human communities – the free, isolated families of the Rhiddaer, the feudalistic Deverrians and the democratic yet slave-trading Bardekians – contrast each other. Though some¬†practices¬†and thoughts are held almost universally in contempt or esteem, there are always exceptions. Despite what the characters might believe, nothing is fixed.

This sentiment comes out particularly in how the series handles religion. Just as Raena and Rocca, devout priestesses of Alshandra, display pure, heartfelt faith in a being who, unbeknownst to them, only ever pretended to be a goddess, Meer’s trust in his sacred traditions provides a sharp counterpoint to the faith of Deverry men and women, whose deities, if not actually malevolent entities in disguise, were still only ever a product of belief, and not the other way around. Though the only true zealots we ever encounter are devotees of either Alshandra or Aranrhodda, we’re nonetheless forced to ask ourselves why we find their beliefs so discomforting. It’s not just the content of the rituals which matters, nor even, to a certain extent, the violence with which those beliefs are¬†pursued. Rather, it’s our knowledge of whether particular beliefs are true, beneficial, benign, false and/or hostile which ultimately shape our reactions. The dweomer of the Light is both true and beneficial- representing the great Light that shines behind all the gods – while the worship of most established deities, if ultimately false, is still benign. Aranrodda’s worship is equally false, but hostile, concerning itself with vengeance and malfeasance; the same is true of Alshandra, but to a much greater extent. At the far end of the continuum is the dark dweomer, being both true – the actual counterpoint to the Light – and hostile in its¬†practices. As Deverry is a fantastic place, we are in a uniquely objective position when it comes to passing such judgement on the beliefs of other people. In the real world, of course, things are never so simple – but then, the people of Deverry are all real in their own minds: they cannot judge as we do, and so act largely in ignorance of truths they cannot possibly know.

Sexuality – particularly as relates to feminism – is another main theme of the books. Though there is no one definition of strength, many of the strongest characters are female, almost all of whom must struggle to follow their own desires in opposition to various cultural demands. A throwaway Cadda Cerrmor line in one of the later books, noting that the stories are set in a time before women learned to control their pregnancies through the dweomer, pointedly underlines the reality of life without contraception. If the series can be said to contain a dearth of women who are willing mothers, this is only because we’re witnessing a society in which willingness has absolutely nothing to do with motherhood, even for those who embrace it. Lacking any control over their own pregnancies in a society where producing heirs is paramount, women have children as a matter of course: not only is doing otherwise almost impossible, but wanting to remain childless is unthinkable. By¬†focusing¬†on women who actively challenge this mentality, Kerr might seem to modern women, who have a choice in childbearing, to be pushing an agenda: but in fact, she only demonstrates the process by which they came to have that choice. However we might judge a character like Dallandra, for instance, we cannot help but be pierced with rage and sympathy at the plight of Bellyra, a fiercely intelligent queen driven to suicide by a combination of royal imprisonment, a well-meaning but careless husband and, significantly, post natal depression.

Though possessed of original magic, brilliant characterisation and memorable storytelling, in the end, it’s the worldbuilding, history and cultural commentary I love most about Deverry. By creating a world with a unique sense of its own past, present and future, Katharine Kerr has succeeded in building a real place – a sprawling, fascinating realm adjacent to our own, and made accessible through the mother roads of mythology, imagination and truth.

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.