John C Adams Reviews 'Daggerspell'

Daggerspell by Katharine Kerr

(Grafton, 1988)

I reviewed Katharine Kerr's most recent novel 'Sword of Fire' (2020) for the British Fantasy Society a while back, which set me thinking that I might like to re-read her debut novel and review it. In very different ways, I enjoyed both equally. Each is straight-up sword and sorcery in a vivid fantasy universe.

Kerr has been a prolific and massively successful author for decades, but 'Daggerspell' is where it all began. Since then, she's published fifteen more novels in the initial Deverry cycle, and plenty of other fantasy novels and anthologies beside.

Jill's mother is dying of fever and her absentee father (who is a mercenary) has been gone a very long time. Word comes back of his exploits, but he is quite often given up for dead. After her mother dies, Jill is temporarily cared for by the owner of the inn where her mother worked, but her dream visions always come true so she know her father will return. When he does, she's delighted and they ride off to the next war for her father to earn enough to support them. This gives Jill the chance to see more of the world than the small corner of it she's experienced in her young life and even start to train as a soldier herself. Her resilience in the face of real personal uncertainty at a young age made me admire this character very much. As a parent of a daughter, I really felt for her.

Jill is able to see fantastical creatures such as gnomes. She feels at home in the magical world that occasionally forms around her, but has no way of knowing that she, and a small number of other people, are reincarnations of the spirits of those who lived hundreds of years ago. An ancient wizard is searching for her, hoping to make her aware of her heritage and unique powers.

The flashback scenes took the reader back many hundreds of years to a Celtic world quite unlike Jill's medieval times. The differences between the present of Jill's world and the flashbacks were carefully presented through detailed portrayals of everyday life. It was clear that the author had done considerable research into the differences of five hundred years or so, and this was one of the book's mains strengths. I really appreciated that because not all fantasy writers layer their fictional universes with this kind of accurate detail. It made the reading experience very vivid, both in the Celtic environment and the medieval ones.

With jumps between the flashbacks and the current narrative (split between Jill and the wizard tracking her) the story was quite complicated. There were some moments where I became confused because a lot of the names were very, very similar both within settings and across the centuries.

Jill and her father were likeable characters with plenty of pluck and determination. Life was never easy for them, but they were resilient and their joy at finding each other after Jill's mother had died was bitter sweet as they each grieved her loss in their own way. The wizard who sought Jill was also relatable, his character made realistic by past challenges that hadn't gone in his favour. At no point did I underestimate the difficulty of the task he faced in locating Jill and convincing her of the truth. He had failed many times before.

This was a confident debut, well researched and with excellent characterisation, that rightly went on to generate a whole cycle of a much-loved fantasy universe. Having seen where Kerr's most recent novel had taken Deverry, I was really glad to return to the book that began that journey.

Many thanks to Cederic Vandenberghe, Ricardo Cruz and Zoltan Tasi for providing the images for this blog via Unsplash.

See on Friday. Meanwhile, the comments section is open.

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