Throwback Thursday: Daggerspell

Illustration: a stony river valley in muted tan shades, with a silver dagger super-imposed

Deverry is an honour-bound kingdom defined by violence, where the mistakes of past lives shape future incarnations. 300 years ago, a prince’s arrogance kept a soul from the dweomer. Now Jill must break chains of love, hate and obligation if she is to finally realise her destiny. Of course, she doesn’t know that…

Jill wants to be a warrior, but in Deverry swords are only put in the hands of men. Still, nobody tells the daughter of Cullyn of Cerrmor what to do, because she’s every bit as stubborn and just as nasty as her famously disgraced Da… and their unusual life is about to give her the opportunity she longs for. But the choices she faces may keep her from her true destiny for another lifetime.

Honestly, so many of my childhood faves boil down to:

World: you can’t do that

Young woman: hold my beer

In many respects, Daggerspell is no different. An epic fantasy with a distinctly Celtic flavour and a unique narrative voice, it’s set in a richly-imagined alternate world, complete with Elves, Dwarves, magic (or dweomer) and fuck off swords. It explores ideas of choice, consequences and redemption over multiple lifetimes, introducing twists and tangles to defeat the most patient soul. It’s heady, often difficult stuff, and it draws me in every time.

Thanks to those reincarnations, Daggerspell plays out across 5 points in time – three set in the 11th century focusing on Jill, and two 7th century flashbacks depicting her past lives. It’s a lot to keep track of in terms of characters and events – not least because the implications of reincarnation mean you know everything is relevant (you’re doing what? That’ll come back to haunt you).

In the middle of it all is Nevyn, an aged sorcerer who can’t die until he brings Jill to the dweomer. He was once third in line to the throne, engaged to the most beautiful lass in Deverry (Jill, then known as Brangwen). As Prince Galrion, Nevyn’s greatest flaw was – arguably – to underestimate everyone around him. Determined to leave court to study the dweomer himself, he was forced to leave Brangwen in an untenable position after trying to make her choices for her. His error resulted in the death of three people.

Stripped of his royal name and cursed never to die, Nevyn has learned his lesson through centuries of failure: Brangwen must be allowed to make her own decisions (and mistakes). Wisdom has come at a price, of course. Where Nevyn has lived only once, the soul that was once Brangwen has had several opportunities to tangle her destiny even further – and to tie it inextricably to the people who played a part in her tragedy. Jill’s unusual bond with her terrifying father and her growing attraction to a young nobleman both stand in the way of her studying magic.

Growing up, I was heavily invested in Jill’s destiny and her story remains a glorious epic of prophecy, magic and battle. But rereading Daggerspell as an adult, I’m finding so much more to enjoy.

In Deverry, power rests in a man’s sword and lords will rebel rather than be ruled by a woman, but Katharine Kerr weaves challenges and feminist criticism into her narrative. It is a woman – Jill – who must be brought to the dweomer; it’s also Jill who up-ends Deverrian expectations as a woman who can best most men with a sword. The supporting cast is full of women in traditional roles who nonetheless wield far-reaching influence: Rodda and Ylaena, wise and compassionate counsellors; crafty Lovyan, far-sighted and manipulative, is a ruler in her own right. This may be a man’s world, but Kerr ruthlessly exposes how toxic it is, from Gerraent’s controlling behaviour to the bombastic posturing of the Eldidd lords.

And much to my surprise, the subplot that steals my heart as an adult reader is the redemption of Gerraent. I hated this soul as a kid: the peerless killer, arrogant and cold-blooded in one unpleasant incarnation after another. But as an adult, I can see how Deverrian culture made Gerraent and Tanyc walking disasters. More importantly, I find myself deeply invested in Cullyn: still a ruthless swordsman, but as honourable as he is bad-ass.

Crucially – in contrast to his previous lives – Cullyn is proud but no longer arrogant, capable of putting those he loves first. He’s a terrible parent, but he keenly desires to do right by his daughter. The narrative is deeply concerned with whether Cullyn loves Jill too much, but to me this feels better framed as a question of whether he will try to control her rather than as an intimation of incest (Nevyn’s baggage comes to the fore here). On that basis, his struggle to let go of his little girl resonates; it’s a beautiful reinterpretation of their shared knot of Wyrd, although it leaves me wondering how many lives have happened between Tanyc and Cullyn as he seems to have grown so much (at least five, as it turns out).

My final delight is in the intricacy of Katharine Kerr’s planning. Within Daggerspell itself, the timelines are interlaced – Blaen’s ghost warning Gweran against vengeance; Aderyn’s melancholy that Jill doesn’t know why she recognises him – delivering emotional beats or hinting slyly at what is to come. But I can see groundwork being laid for plots that won’t play out for another 8 books. Add in the immersive world-building, character nuances and political manoeuvring, and I’m a pig in mud – even on my umpteenth reread.

I’ve probably flailed in enough detail at this point to put a first time reader off completely. But if you’re still with me, trust me – this is a classic that’s well worth your time.

Trigger warnings: incest, questionable consent, harassment, stalking, physical abuse, suicide


Yes, I know, I know – the header image isn’t the cover art for the new release. It’s the gorgeous artwork from the first edition, which is the one that graces my shelf (yes, I was much too young to be reading Deverry in the 80s, shhhh). In my defence, I didn’t pick the book for its cover (although I would these days, just look at it) – I was given a copy due to a bookseller’s misconception that all fantasy books were as child-friendly as Tolkien (oops). Anyway, here’s the very spiffy new edition you should be looking out for:

Book cover: Daggerspell - Katharine Kerr (2019 UK edition)

The new edition of Daggerspell is available now in paperback.