Throwback Thursday: Darkspell

Cover art (Geoff Taylor) for Darkspell by Katharine Kerr

Jill is free to ride the long road with her noble lover, now a shamed silver dagger. Eldidd’s future hangs on Rhodry’s Wyrd, and Jill must do her best to keep them both alive. But she can’t escape her own dweomer destiny: her aptitude for magic puts her in harm’s way even as it protects her…

Welcome back to my meandering – and spoilery – musings on the Deverry Cycle for the Runalong Readalong!

Darkspell was my original point of entry into Deverry. The blurb on my edition implies a family friendly fantasy, which is why my aunt bought it for me (I was nine or ten). Readers, this is not what you can expect. Welcome to the problematic second album: if you thought incest was hard to swallow in Daggerspell, it’s all going to get a lot more uncomfortable.

That said, half of Darkspell is amongst my favourite parts of the Deverry saga. It will surprise absolutely no-one that Jill’s incarnation as a headstrong, bloodthirsty warrior priestess ticked all my boxes as a kid. If I’d met Brangwen and Lyssa first, I might have had no patience for Jill’s past lives; but my first flashback was Gweniver of the Wolf.

As a young reader, Gweniver (like Jill) was one of the rare girls in fantasy who grabbed a sword and determined her own destiny (four, if you count Eilonwy. Fuck it, she grabs a sword even if she gives it away; I’ll count Eilonwy). Decisive and determined, Gwen smuggles her female kin to safety after her clan loses a blood feud, becomes a battle priestess of the Dark Moon, and persuades the King to give her a place in his warband. She lives for her Dark Goddess and to kill people who piss her off. She’s short-tempered, proud, argumentative and fearless. She’s awesome.

As an adult, it’s easier to give Gwen some side eye (oh, the vengeful teenager has a divine vision of a Goddess who hasn’t had a worshipper in centuries, validating her desire to prosecute her clan’s blood feud? How convenient), but she’s a fascinating progression. In Daggerspell, Lyssa cowers in her room while two men fight over her and wishes she were a man; in Darkspell, Gwen outdraws them both and disarms the more dangerous of the two. She doesn’t need to be a man to protect herself: she has the Goddess and the law on her side, along with an alarming talent for picking fights – and winning them.

She still ticks all my boxes, frankly.

This is the first of many flashbacks focusing on the century-long Deverrian civil war. It’s a merciless, blood-soaked backdrop for a series of unforgettable characters. In Darkspell, the war is in its earliest days. The Boar clan are still rare for their flexible definition of what’s honourable; there are still social contracts observed. The flashback focuses on Gwen’s vengeance and the simmering love/hate triangle between her, Ricyn/Rhodry/Blaen and Dannyn/Cullyn/Gerraent (explaining along the way why Jill and Rhodry are attracted to one another. Nevyn rolls his eyes so hard).

I was surprised to find I had more patience for Cullyn’s past incarnation than I used to. Kerr works harder to round out his character this time; I almost found Dannyn sympathetic, refreshing after self-pitying Gerraent (woe is me, I fancy my sister) and cold-eyed psychopath Tanyc (I can take her if I want her). Sure, he’s a short-tempered, hard-drinking asshat with a chip on his shoulder, but I like his acid humour, his social conscience, and how he calls Gwen on her privilege. While his choices are ultimately unforgivable, he at least tries to exercise restraint. Perhaps controversially, I also feel Nevyn lets Dannyn down, because our dear old dweomer master is clinging tight to his own baggage.

Hats off to Kerr – she has me advocating for a character I once considered an unapologetic antagonist. But what I really appreciate in Darkspell is the secondary (tertiary?) narrative woven into Gwen’s tale – and then given a stand-alone flashback in its right – about Prince Mael, the philosopher Prince of Eldidd. Mael is one of my absolute favourite characters: a young warrior turned frustrated hostage, who becomes a brilliant sage and a humble man. I’m not sure we needed to know the roots of the Maelwaedd clan, but I remain so glad Kerr included it as a peaceful interlude between Gwen’s blood-soaked battles and the horror of the present day.

This is where things go sideways. Unfortunately, the present day segment is problematic to say the least, and while I know it has been partially rewritten – I have the original edition – I’m not convinced Kerr fixed it.

On the face of it, Darkspell is a gripping episode of Jill and Rhodry’s life on the long road. We rejoin the lovers after a year or so as silver daggers. Jill is manipulating Rhodry’s finances – and contracts – with practised ease. Rhodry is doing his best to adapt, but battles insecurity (who is Jill sleeping with while he’s off on campaign? No-one, you dolt) and depression over his change in circumstances.

Their life gets complicated when they inadvertently upset the latest scheme of the dark dweomer master who tried to get Rhodry killed in Eldidd. His plot is faintly ludicrous, although I think that’s partly because I find the dark dweomer a bit silly; they’re just so over the top in their moustache-twirling eeeeee-vil and convoluted plots. You just know they’d monologue given half a chance and Alastyr’s etheric double is totally a daft dweomer cape.

But there’s a bigger problem: our evil villains are the only gay characters in sight. Worse, Alastyr is not just gay, he’s a paedophile. His apprentice Sarcyn – a survivor of Alastyr’s abuse – is also gay, and powers their black magic rituals by raping a captive nobleman (Camdel) who eventually becomes confused about his sexuality. When Sarcyn checks Rhodry out, his gaze is described as having ‘twisted intensity’. Draw your own conclusions, folks, but I can’t give any of this a pass.

Kerr has always maintained she wasn’t drawing a line between being gay and being evil; it’s Alastyr’s paedophilia we’re meant to condemn, not his sexual orientation. She rewrote Darkspell in the mid-90s to try and address the criticisms. In the Revised Edition, Sarcyn’s brother is a sister (Alastyr abuses them both), and Sarcyn is attracted to both men and women. However – judging from my co-reader Lisa’s reactions – the edit didn’t really fix the core issue: the lack of any positive queer rep. Our villains remain the only queer folk on the page.

Still, Kerr tries hard to humanise Sarcyn. He’s a terrible human being, twisted by his lifelong domination by dark dweomer, but he hasn’t quite snuffed out his conscience or his compassion. I’m curious about how this plays out in the Revised Edition, as in the original his inner conflict is driven as much by his love for his little brother as his pity for Camdel. But that he remains capable of pity – and eventually guilt – makes him an intriguing, complex character with a brave arc.

Moving on to happier world-building notes, Darkspell shows there are black people in the world (from Bardek) as well as extending the Elven cast and giving us our first glimpse of a Dwarven city. I love how this broader context of peoples and cultures slowly unfolds through the saga, setting the stage for future narratives; and I’m all the more excited for knowing how much remains to be revealed. Similarly, I remain deeply impressed by the scope of Deverry itself: Kerr never fails to have me believe in her world, from its sweeping history to its murky underworld (shout out here for Ogwern, who gets treated shamefully by both Sarcyn and Jill, and is a brilliant supporting character).

Speaking of great characters, I also loved cousin Blaen, who drinks so much even Rhodry tries to slow him down (I’d love to have met his wife Canyffa. I suspect she’s terrifying, and that he lives in awe of her). At the other end of the manliness scale, Salamander is my purest delight, almost the exact opposite of what we’ve been taught is admirable in a Deverry man: a lover of language and fine living, who never uses one adjective (or noun) when four will do. On reflection, perhaps the biggest missed opportunity of the Revised Edition is failing to make him bisexual. But anyway.

While I think it’s important to acknowledge its shortcomings, there’s still much to love about Darkspell. It is by turns tense, terrifying and hilarious (the Great Stone of the West is sassy), and Jill’s progress on her journey towards the dweomer is all the more satisfying when contrasted with mistakes of her past lives. While I’m far from reconciled to the way its villains are portrayed, I’m looking forward to Dawnspell with far fewer reservations.

Content warnings: harassment/stalking, suicidal ideation, suicide, rape (m/m), homophobic content, fat-shaming


Okay, so Darkspell didn’t have quite such a spiffy cover as Daggerspell, but I’m never going to stop appreciating Geoff Taylor’s artwork and you’re damn right if you think you’re getting his designs as my header images for this whole sequence of reviews. For those looking to pick the book up now, this is the rather gorgeous new edition you should be looking out for:

Book cover: Darkspell - Katharine Kerr (Orbit, 2019)

The new edition of Darkspell is available now in paperback.

The Deverry Runalong-Readalong continues with Dawnspell next month.