Kerr’s Deverry series is a classic in the epic fantasy field, and it’s no surprise why. World building is excellent, detailed and consistent; she does an amazing job of bringing early, almost primitive, Welsh culture to life, albeit a culture with more magical tendencies than our own. From a village tavern to the women’s hall in a lord’s dun, to riding patrol through a forest, it feels earthy and real. The magical system is a kind of sophisticated spiritualism that is vital to development of the plot and is a satisfying element of the book.
One of my favorite things about the series is the complexity of character development. We witness people struggling with personal and political issues, occasionally failing, but occasionally overcoming challenges with grace. I particularly enjoy how women are developed; though the culture is at heart sex-defined, we see the many ways women can take power for themselves at different levels of society, from the common lass, Jill, to the lady of the dun, Lovyan. Also notable is Kerr’s refusal to glorify violence, even as one or two of her characters are some of the most feared swordsmen around. An additional noteworthy aspect is that Kerr includes non-nobility classes without glorifying their struggles or minimizing the role they play in maintaining the nobility’s lifestyle.
One of the central concepts to this series is the idea of ‘Wyrd,’ an aspect of destiny combined with reincarnation. Characters are not completely fated to a particular course of action, but will find themselves repeating ill-negotiated challenges until their soul gets it right. The central characters in this series are drawn together across space and time because four hundred years ago, family obligations, injustice and tragedy occurred in such a way as to bind their threads together. Nevyn, a sorcerer known as a ‘dweomermaster,’ is the only one of the people in this situation who is aware of the cycle of Wyrd, and one of his goals is to connect with the others as they enter their new life cycles and correct his mistakes.
What adds depth and complexity to the overall plot is that the characters are working out their Wyrd in three different time periods. As we go back in time, we also experience the culture in earlier forms, allowing the reader to get the sense of development of society through eons. Somewhat unfortunately, names are in dialect and it lends itself to confusion in keeping track of each person and their three names through their incarnations. The first time through, I found it confusing, but I was younger then. It’s a shame I only discovered the reincarnation end notes after finishing–it might have helped me keep some of the names/personalities straight during the three periods covered. On re-read, the time changes flow better, and the situations playing out slightly differently in the second time period adds to the sense of tragedy to the first, and hope for the third.
Truly a great read for those who like complex epic fantasy. I’ve been a fan of this series for a long time, and they’ve earned a permanent spot on my shelves. Four solid stars: Star one: world-building. Star two: character development. Star three: nicely developed plot with what could have been very conventional fantasy–yes, there are serfs and nobles, and battles, and elves and even a dwarf, but they are done in a way that feels real, and emphasizes the loss as much as the magic. Star four: complexity in all of the aforementioned categories. The beginning Deverry series achieves a rare pathos, and likely spoiled me for many subsequent fantasies.