Sword of Fire by Katharine Kerr. Review.

Sword of Fire by Katharine Kerr (Book 1 of The Justice War)

Harper Voyager, hb, £14.99

Reviewed by John C Adams

Katharine Kerr’s Deverry books have been delighting readers for decades. This new series in the cycle expands the Celtic-inspired universe of books such as ‘Daggerspell’ and ‘The Silver Mage’, while introducing a new cast of characters.

Alyssa has scrapped her way upwards from baker’s daughter to student at the prestigious United Scholars’ Collegia in Aberwyn and has shown a notable talent for rhetoric. She’s forged a close bond with Lady Dovina, who has also flourished in the meritocratic environment of the college. Just as studying hard has enabled Alyssa to fulfill her true potential, Dovina’s studies enable her to delay being parceled off in marriage to a complete stranger as part of a family strategy to win influence at the royal court.

Both young women care passionately about justice, and they are determined to see the legal system of their home region altered so that instead of having disputes heard by the leading local nobleman (the Gwerbret) each party has the right to have the matter adjudicated upon by an independent set of judges. The key to success, as with so much in the law, lies in establishing a precedent so that the Prince Regent can be won over to a development that many see as startling. Since Dovina’s father Ladoic is the Gwerbret of Aberwyn, the struggle becomes intensely personal.

This story is partly a quest narrative, since Alyssa and her bodyguards (Silver Daggers Benoic and Cavan) must travel to the healing isle of Haen Marn to locate the ‘Annals of the Dawntime’, which will provide the necessary proof that the ancients did once elect their judiciary. Courtesy of the novel’s focus on education and romance, it sits comfortably within the coming-of-age subgenre of epic fantasy. Its combination of dangerous journey and college education, with a smattering of romance to help the narrative along, reminded me of ‘Cold Magic’ by Kate Elliott. Female empowerment is the order of the day as the heroines do battle with the entrenched patriarchal forces of the status quo.

I was a lawyer before I became an author and critic, so I’m fascinated by any tale where a fight to alter the underlying structure of the power system takes centre stage. A fair society depends upon an impartial justice system, and the coming-of-age environment provided the ideal setting to portray this struggle. Young people care passionately about fairness and are not yet beaten down enough by life’s unfairness to submit to it as unchangeable.

As regular readers of my reviews here at The British Fantasy Society will already appreciate in spades, I’m not a fan of dialogue. And while it didn’t materially detract from my enjoyment of a vividly detailed fantasy world or the careful construction of character and plot, it’s fair to say that there was alot of dialogue in this novel.

With the support of the female elders in their college and at Haen Marn, Alyssa and Dovina fight tooth and nail against the odds to ensure a better tomorrow. Their concern for others, as well as their bravery and determination to take control of their own life choices, made them both impressive characters. The narrative unfolded very gently, leaving plenty of room to focus on personal development amid the tension of the quest and the challenge of persuading the Prince Regent to embrace the future willingly.

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