Rereading Katherine Kurtz

The Deryni Rise Again: A Reread of Katherine Kurtz

Some books are a revelation. They come along at just the right time, for just the right reasons. They become heart books, and soul books.

They don’t have to be the best books or the most literary books or the most important books. They can be flawed and problematical and occasionally frustrating, but it doesn’t matter. They’re just right.

Katherine Kurtz’s first Deryni books were my gateway drug not for reading fantasy—that would be Tolkien—but for writing it. What she did in her medieval world, just a step over from ours, was this enormous “OH! Yes!” These were the books I’d always wanted, though I never knew it until I found them.

The Seventies were an interesting time to be a reader or writer of fantasy. Tolkien was the great master. Lin Carter was resurrecting wonders of British and American fantasy from the early twentieth century in his Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. Star Wars hadn’t happened yet, and the fantasy boom of the Eighties was barely a gleam in Lester Del Rey’s eye.

And here were these not-quite-historical fantasies with a subspecies of not-quite-human wielders of magic, or was it psi? They were wonderful.

Of course I read that classic, and infamous, trashing of the books’ prose in Ursula Le Guin’s “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie,” and I got what she was getting at. But I also got what Kurtz had done. Nobody else had written anything quite like it. It was its own thing, and it was my thing. It was what I wanted to be when I grew up. (OK. With prettier prose. But still.)

I didn’t realize then that Kurtz’s books were going to fall into the black hole of women’s writing, and be ignored or forgotten. I just knew that they were important to me, and that they had shown me what a writer can do with a deep grounding in medieval European history and culture, and a fantasy reader’s eye and mind. They were my motherline.

Imagine the joy when, in the fullness of time, the first blurb for my first novel came in, and it was from none other than Katherine Kurtz. She had loved it. She said it was exactly her kind of book.

I geeked straight out of my mind. She saw what I did there. She got it. And she liked it. She welcomed me the community of writers in our genre, and showed me how to pay it forward.

I’ll never forget that. But long before the writer-joy was the reader-joy, devouring the adventures of Alaric and Duncan and Kelson, and later in publication dates (though earlier chronologically), Camber and company. I lived in that world. I knew those characters. They were part of me.

There’s a bit of apprehension in revisiting heart books like this, decades later. Will they hold up? Will the magic still be there? Can my older, cannier, much more cynical self, with a few dozen books of my own under my belt, still read these books as the grand stories and great precursors that they were to me when they were first published?

We’re about to find out. I’ll be rereading the first trilogy published, beginning with Deryni Rising. I invite you to join me. Haven’t read the books before? There will be spoilers, by the nature of this reread beast. But I’ll be taking my time—three to five chapters at a go—so it will be fairly simple to follow along.

Here’s a first line for you:

“Brion Haldane, King of Gwynedd, Prince of Meara, and Lord of the Purple March, reined in his horse sharply at the top of the hill and scanned the horizon.”

Oh my. Goosebumps already—the kind you get when you come back to a heart book. This is going to be a lovely ride.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, appeared in 1985. Her new novel, Forgotten Suns, a space opera, was published by Book View Café in 2015. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She lives in Arizona with an assortment of cats, a blue-eyed spirit dog, and a herd of Lipizzan horses.

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