It's said that J.R.R. Tolkien invented an entirely new genre, "Sword and Sorcery," by creating The Lord of the Rings. Some readers will insist that Tolkien's work, and Katharine Kerr's, falls under the rubric of "High Fantasy," but the difference between the two genres seems, to this reviewer, to be equivalent to the difference between purple and violet.
More relevantly, fully 30% of all fiction books published today fall into the genre, whatever name we give it. In truth, Tolkien breathed life back into the old Northern European myths about Elves and Dwarves and Trolls. The good Professor, an Oxford Don whose specialty was Philology, would be proud of Ms. Kerr, who puts her own fascinating and lively spin on the old myths.
The prolific Katharine Kerr taps into the ancient Celtic traditions to create the world of Annwn (literally meaning "Nowhere" in Welsh), an incredibly detailed, incredibly graphic land of the imagination filled with lost mountains, far valleys, and towns and villages whose denizens, most unknowingly, exist in a world filled with "Dweomer."
"Dwimmer," meaning "magic" or "sorcery," is an ancient English word, probably derived from the original Brythonic language spoken by the Celtic Britons in pre-Roman times. Likewise, "cwm" or "coombe," meaning "valley," appears only on Great British maps, the first variant being Welsh and the other Old English. "Weird" is a modern English word which means "bizarre," but it derives from the earlier word "weirding," a term applied to occultists who were supposedly able to alter fate.
Kerr's representational humans are descendants of European Continental Celts (Gauls), an historic people made up of numerous tribes who were decimated and dominated by the Roman legions commanded by Julius Caesar, circa 50 B.C. According to Kerr's mythology, the tribe living in the invented Gaulish Kingdom Devetia Riga was magically transported to Annwn, where they established the Kingdom of Deverry.
In keeping with ancient Celtic beliefs, Kerr crafts her epic in the form of an Eternal Knot. Theoretically, every tale she tells is the beginning, the middle, and the ending of the story. Beginning the series with the first book, Daggerspell or any other of the fifteen novels that make up the series should bring you right back to THE SILVER MAGE, book number fifteen, and the fourth and concluding book in "The Silver Wyrm" Cycle. However, given the numerous storylines and recurring characters in different incarnations that have developed over the course of the fifteen novels, it's far easier to read the books in sequence. You're advised to ignore the separate cycles which do not really stand alone.
If you haven't read Katharine Kerr's "Deverry" books, you will find that very, very unlike Tolkien's Middle Earth, Annwn is rather tumbledown and casually violent. The stink of horse manure fills the air of the towns, roadside inns crawl with lice, ale, the universal drink, is dipped from open barrels (flies and all), drunken men with swords go to war over herds of pigs and cows or an inflated sense of ego disguised as honor, rape and robbery are commonplace, illegitimate children, though scorned, are ubiquitous, and the Deverrian tongue is replete with curses, most of which cannot be reprinted here. Kerr seems to delight in coming up with more and more outrageous expletive phraseology, my favorite of which is, "By the scaly underside of a dragon's ... !"
J.R.R. Tolkien wrote like the restrained University Don he was. Middle Earth has the vertical intellectual airiness of the dreaming spires of Oxford. Kerr writes like the Rust Belt native that she is. Working-class Deverry spills horizontally off the pages in an entertaining flood, which is why it took fifteen full novels to tell the tale.
The individual plotlines of the Deverry storylines are straightforward rather than rococo, with just a few curves here and there. There's not a lot of mystery here, not a lot of unanswered questions, and any resolution of suspense tends to be pretty much what you'd predict. In the end, the reader has to keep track of more than enough incarnations and karmic twists that the addition of diversionary plot elements within the stories themselves probably would have had the average reader screaming.
The Deverry books concern the life stories of Jill, the heroine of the saga. What Jill does not know is that her life is inextricably bound up with that of the Dweomermaster Nevyn. Long ago, Nevyn was once Galrion, a Prince of the Realm, but youthful impetuosity led to his exile, and more importantly, to the deaths of several innocent people including his royal fiancee, the Princess Brangwen, Jill's preincarnation.
Brangwen's tragic death caused Nevyn to take a rash vow---to live until he had undone all the wrong he'd caused. Kerr tells the long tale of Brangwen and Galrion in what amounts to a series of short novelettes-within-the-Deverry-novels. Along the way, Kerr fleshes out her colorful, lively universe, which is populated not only by the Deverrians, but by Elves and Dwarves, among many other beings.
In THE SILVER MAGE the dozens of separate strands of storyline in the saga draw ever closer together, becoming a single thread. Most of THE SILVER MAGE concerns itself with the end of the Horsekin Wars.
Although THE SILVER MAGE is as well-written as any of the Deverry books, it's uneven. The storyline meanders back and forth from the Elven Westlands, to the Dwarveholt, on to Cerr Cawnen, up to the Northlands, down to Bardek, and on to Cengarn, resolving the past storylines in bits and pieces.
I'm just sorry I couldn't give THE SILVER MAGE a fourth star, because though at times it deserves only two, there are moments where it richly deserves five. I've decided to take it right down the middle and give it three.
Kerr expends both too much and not enough time and energy going off on tangents in THE SILVER MAGE. For example, Kerr takes us on a few seemingly random journeys in the course of ending her epic. In a past life sequence, we find ourselves in the ancient Elven cities which are under siege by the Horsekin. But Kerr doesn't spend nearly enough time in that era (71 C.E.) to give us the flavor of the years of true Elven greatness.
Likewise, far too late in the saga she introduces the race of Dwrgi, who, other than corresponding to Water as the other races correspond to the other Classical Elements (Elves the air, Horsekin fire, Dwarves the Earth, and Humans Aethyr), manage to add essentially nothing to the storyline.
Similarly, there are individual characters who are given large and promising introductions. We are led to believe they are going to play major roles, but then Kerr gives them no set purpose in the story. They make their entrance to the sound of trumpets and exit to the sound of crickets, having done little more than add color to a scene or two.
After writing fourteen previous novels, Kerr, with surprising authorial inefficiency, seemed to be cramming this one full of odds and ends just so she could finish up the series. I kept sensing that she meant the Deverry Saga to have one more book (perhaps the fourth of "The Dragon Mage" Cycle or a fifth to "The Silver Wyrm") in order to really do the series justice, but that, for some reason, she could not make the tale she needed to tell maintain the critical mass to be a fifteenth or sixteenth volume. Instead, book number 15/16 is hidden somewhere inside THE SILVER MAGE like a fetus in fetu.
Given the sheer scope and timeline of the Deverry series (at 2.5 million words written over a period of twenty three years, it covers 1000 years of Deverrian history), it's far from amazing that bringing the series to a close would present some real difficulties. Authors far more talented than Kerr (or me) have problems ending their own epic tales. I was seven-eighths of the way through THE SILVER MAGE before I got a whiff of where the book would be ending. I'm not certain that, to that point, Kerr knew either. Or, let me correct that: Kerr has always maintained she had the ending in mind, but that she had just a foggy idea of how to get there. In the end, she got there just by deciding to get there (insert kettle drums here).
After the resolution (which I won't spoil), the book ended, ironically enough, with a surprising abruptness. After there being a full fourteen novels about the world of Annwn, THE SILVER MAGE didn't unwind the Eternal Knot Kerr had designed. Instead, like Alexander facing the Gordian Knot, it cut it. THE SILVER MAGE screeched to a halt as though it was a speeding car on the Interstate that just managed to avoid going through the guardrail.
The series asked many long-standing questions of itself, starting all the way back in Daggerspell, written in 1986---Why, what, and how, exactly, was Rhodry's wyrd Eldidd's wyrd? And what was the great debt that was owed to Rhodry by Jill through the thousand years the story covers?---Kerr definitely answered the questions in 2009's THE SILVER MAGE, but the answers seemed to lack the necessary gravitas.
Very unsatisfactorily, Kerr spent very little time on any sort of coda to her story: Characters who had been of great importance all through the saga left the stage with no fanfare at all, not as much as a fare-thee-well. Lesser characters did not even get an honorable mention as the lights faded.
All in all, THE SILVER MAGE, though well-written, seems curiously unfinished.
Having read all of Kerr's Deverry Saga in the matter of a month and a half (roughly a book every three days), I took note of a number of central themes. Here they are, in no particular order:
1. CHANGE: Life is change. Despite what the characters say, that one's fate cannot be turned aside, it's clear that humanity does not know what its fate is. The smallest decisions can cause a "Butterfly Effect" which echoes down the ages. And we are that butterfly, always free to flap its wings.
2. SOCIAL EVOLUTION: The Kingdom of Deverry begins its days as a war-torn geographical entity, hardly a Kingdom at all, a place that is wracked by internal strife. Men kill each other over minor points of "honor." Although time passes incredibly slowly, and there are many reversals along the way and much fear and xenophobia, ultimately the Kingdom is unified, violence becomes less acceptable, and the kingdom begins to trade with and share knowledge with its various neighboring states. The Taer Angwidd (Unknown Land) of the earliest novels becomes a known land wherein live Elves, Dwarves, Horsekin, Dwrgi, Gel Da'Thae, Dragons, and other humans. "Ethics" begins to replace "honor" as the basis of the social code.
3. LIFE LESSONS: Every character goes through any number of reincarnations. Your mother in one life may be your mortal enemy in another. Your life is eternal even though the body you wear in any particular life is not. And because each life represents an opportunity to learn, each life is precious.
4. THE ROLE OF RITUAL: Kerr's ritual is tied up with the use of magic in the Deverry books, but strip away the pyrotechnics and ritual becomes a grounding force in the world, one that helps to define all actions as sacred. This is in keeping with the Kabbalah, upon which she based her dweomer system.
5. THE POWER OF WOMEN: Kerr is a Feminist, and not for nothing does the great ritual that closes the book involve no men in its working. As the saga evolves, Women become increasingly central to the tale as the teachers, the healers and the bearers of knowledge. Men have temporal power as kings and warriors, but women, as the bearers of Life and Secret Knowledge, are the keepers of the Spirit.
The numerous storylines in the Deverry Saga all become one, ultimately. But here is my summary of them:
1. The Tangled Wyrd: Nevyn, Jill and Rhodry are the three central "present-day" characters of the series. Most of the series concerns the interactions of these three, whether in past or present lives.
2. The Transformation of Rhodry: Rhodry is born a human warlord, but as the story evolves, he evolves, passing through identities as a human warlord, a human prince, a slave, an elf, a dwarven ally, and a dragon.
3. The Return of The Elves: Having been brutally displaced by the Horsekin from their near mythical cities of the past, the various far-flung Elven survivor communities slowly reunite and begin to re-establish their kingdoms.
4. Evandar's Trick: Evandar is the mythological Trickster due to whose ill-considered, incompletely thought-out schemes the history of Annwn is so bloody for so long.
5. Alshandra and The Horsekin: In trying to incarnate his race, Evandar gains the enmity of his wife, Alshandra, whose rekigious/warrior cult soon swells and causes the Horsekin Wars.
6. The Dark Dweomer: Dark Dweomermasters attempt to destabilize Deverry.
7. The Great Krysello: Rhodry's half-brother Salamander, a jokester with serious intent travels to The Westlands, Bardek, and The Northlands serving the needs of the kingdom.
8. The Dragons' Lair: At first merely characters in the Horsekin Wars, the dragons become a major theme that brings the saga to its close, hence linking all storylines.
9. King Maryn and The Silver Daggers: In what amounts to an independent novel within the saga, King Maryn unifies Deverry.
Another reader might choose different elements; for example, I consider the Dwarven stories (including Haen Marn) to be part of the Horsekin Wars, just as I count the brief story of the Dwrgi under that rubric. I'd be interested in seeing others' comments on this series.