Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Deryni Rising, Chapters 4-6

Welcome to the weekly reread of Deryni Rising!

Last week we were introduced to Katherine Kurtz’s world of gorgeous medieval settings, resounding character names, magic and intrigue and danger and daring. This week we meet Father Duncan at last, our heroes have a very important and highly time-sensitive mystery to solve, and two key adversaries meet, verbally spar, and set us up for fireworks later.

 

Deryni Rising: Chapters 4-6

Here’s What Happens: As Chapter 4 begins, we finally meet Monsignor Duncan McLain. He’s been waiting a long time for Alaric and Kelson, and he’s terribly worried. Finally he senses them coming, and then sees them.

The sense of urgency is strong. Duncan is in deep cover both as a Deryni and as the holder of the key to Kelson’s royal powers. Officially he’s Kelson’s confessor, and that’s how he manages to stay close to the king.

They withdraw as discreetly as they can to Duncan’s study, and Duncan starts arranging the room. They have half an hour, by his calculations, before they’re interrupted.

He and Morgan have a very familiar relationship, with easy banter. Morgan brings out the royal signet, which Brion entrusted to him. Duncan confirms that it’s real, and Morgan produces a second signet with the arms of his Deryni mother, which is a kind of magical key.

Duncan explains to Kelson how it works. In the process, he reveals that he’s also Deryni. Then he and Morgan key the ring to Duncan, so that he can use the ring to retrieve the royal seal from its hiding place in the basilica.

Kelson is awed. Morgan explains how he and Duncan are related (their mothers were sisters). Duncan has to hide this for his life’s sake.

He and Morgan discuss Morgan’s Deryni identity, how and why he went public and why so many others have hidden it. Morgan had Brion’s protection. Duncan has taken sanctuary in the priesthood.

Meanwhile Duncan is having a little trouble getting to the seal. The Queen’s guards are watching. He uses a little Deryni magic, a little clerical authority, and a good dollop of misdirection both verbal (telling a guard Alaric has come to him as a penitent) and physical (a complicated shell game with three chalices and the ring).

He makes it back safely to the study with a box containing Brion’s poetically obscure instructions for activating Kelson’s powers. They then have to break the code and figure out how the ritual is to be performed.

They quickly discover that one of the required ritual objects, the Eye of Rom, was buried with Brion. They’ll have to break into the crypt. Kelson is horrified. Duncan adds to his horror by speculating that Charissa might have bound Brion’s soul in his body.

They discuss how to get into the heavily guarded crypt. Suddenly they’re interrupted. Archbishop Loris (one of our prime non-Deryni villains) has come for Morgan. They go back and forth a bit, but Morgan has to give himself up, if only to stall the Council long enough to get Kelson’s powers activated.

Loris executes the warrant for Morgan’s arrest. Morgan is insouciant. Loris loses his temper. Kelson pulls rank, and backs Loris down, but Morgan is still a prisoner.

In Chapter 5, the Council is in an uproar. Bishop Arilan is trying hard to change Jehana’s mind about Morgan. Kelson arrives, with Loris and Morgan, and brings them all to attention.

Loris reports to Jehana, but Kelson pulls rank again. “Morgan is my prisoner.”

Jehana grudgingly accedes. Kelson makes it clear he’s not playing her game. He rebukes Nigel for failing to delay the meeting till he could get there. Nigel casts the blame on Jehana. She’s defiant. Kelson asks for a repeat of the vote against Morgan.

The result, with Derry voting on Morgan’s behalf, is a tie. Jehana is defiant again. Kelson calls on Morgan to cast his own vote. Jehana shoots back that if Morgan can vote at his own trial, so can she—and she breaks the tie.

Kelson seems to be flattened. While Ewan reads the lengthy charges, Kelson regroups (and signals Morgan not to do anything). He appoints Derry to fill Lord Ralson’s vacant seat, which ties the vote again. Then, when Jehana loudly protests, he points out that he is in fact of legal age as of the past hour—and can therefore legally break the tie by pronouncing Morgan innocent. He frees Morgan, adjourns the meeting, and makes a dramatic exit.

Jehana is appalled. Ian is analytical. Kelson, he realizes, is unpredictable. Ian slips away to report to Charissa.

Kelson and company take time for glee. Morgan points out that Kelson didn’t need to appoint Derry, he could just make a royal judgment. Kelson responds that this way it all stayed legal. Morgan allows as how that’s a good thing.

Morgan sends Derry to tell Duncan what happened. He and Kelson retire to rest. (But not poor Derry, be it noted: he’ll get a nap after he runs his errand, but then he has to guard Kelson all night.)

Ian, all slithery and eye-glittery, plumbs the depths of the palace and uses a hapless guard to work a spell that turns him into a channel for Charissa. We learn that they have evil plans for tonight and tomorrow, and Ian has even more evil plans for the guard.

When Charissa has withdrawn, Ian kills the guard, rather sloppily, and frames Morgan for it. It’s all part of the ongoing campaign to fatally discredit Morgan.

Morgan wakes to the sound of the bells for vespers at the beginning of Chapter 6. A storm is brewing, which does not make Morgan happy. Morgan is exhausted, and he has to search Brion’s library for clues to the meaning of the ritual verses. But first of all he has to protect Kelson while he’s in the library.

He puts on a warm robe (which is much too small) and produces a leather case from his saddlebags. Then we get our first example of full Deryni ritual magic.

What we’ve seen up to now has been more in the order of killer psi and psychic channeling with elements of hypnosis. This is a proper and, we’ll learn as we go on, fairly common ritual of warding. A Ward Major to be precise, Morgan tells Kelson, who has awakened during the ritual.

Kelson wants to go with Morgan, but Morgan hypnotizes him until he falls asleep. Then Morgan completes the warding ritual and leaves the room.

In the library, Morgan is getting nowhere, until he decides to try something called the Rhys Thuryn technique. He uses his gryphon signet as a focus for meditation. He’s trying to get into Brion’s thought processes when he designed Kelson’s power ritual, but it backfires: Morgan ends up with a vision of someone else, a man in a black cowl.

He gives up and wanders to the bookshelf, taking out a book seemingly at random—and there it is, in a book of saints’ lives: the face he saw in his vision. It’s none other than Saint Camber of Culdi, patron of Deryni magic.

This is all terribly coincidental. Morgan, who is a skeptic about saints, reads what’s written about Camber. Among much other information he learns that Camber’s sainthood was revoked, and Camber himself might not have actually died in 905 (and it’s now the 1100s, i.e., two hundred years later).

Morgan ponders the book and the portrait, with many questions. Then Charissa appears. Morgan is insouciant as he calls her on her various machinations. Charissa haughtily denies poisoning Brion.

They go back and forth with the accusations and the snark. Charissa pre-gloats, at length and in the face of everything Morgan can say, about Kelson’s death and Morgan’s inability to prevent it. Morgan threatens her. She threatens right back.

Morgan leaves. She stays, and wonders what the lives of the saints have to do with anything. She doesn’t like not knowing what Morgan is really up to.

 

And I’m Thinking: We’re moving right along here, with magic, intrigue, legal manipulations, various mysteries, another dead body, various confrontations, and plenty of evil league of evil. We see our first example of Deryni ritual magic, with several examples of the more casual or psionic type.

It’s pretty clear how and why the Deryni Interregnum was such a horror for humans. Ian and Charissa are downright serpentine in their awfulness. But then we’ve got Alaric and Duncan, who are clearly good guys. So it’s not the magic that’s good or bad, it’s the people who possess it.

Not all the villains are Deryni. Jehana fundamentally means well but is doing everything she can to make Kelson’s position impossible. Archbishop Loris is another righteous villain, who does what he feels is his duty. But then Charissa is exacting revenge for the death of her father and the persecution of her people, so she’s not all evil Just Because, either. She has reasons for being as awful as she is.

Kelson continues to be amazing, of course, and utterly charming. He pulls off a great legal coup in council, and saves Morgan for the time being, while also making sure it’s all proper and aboveboard. That surprises even Morgan; Kelson, it’s clear, is not anybody’s tame Lion of Gwynedd.

And we get to see Camber. For those who read the books when they first came out, before the Camber series was published, this was a great mystery which unfolded slowly. There’s a sense of history here, and mysterious magic, that is all the stronger without the prequels to explain it.

As a medievalist I ate this up then and I do now, too, though I do (and did) stumble a bit at the Monsignor thing. Monsignor is a papal honor, but there’s no Pope. It’s never really explained, that I can recall, where the office comes from. A council of bishops?

That’s kind of a pull-up-short if one knows the real Middle Ages, but the verisimilitude of the Church and its clerics is otherwise pretty strong. I’m seeing the organization of the Church is being more like the Eastern Church, or the Byzantine rite, with no one Pope set over the bishops.

In a comment on last week’s reread, someone noted that there are no Jews in this world. As I read, it occurred to me that the Deryni take that place. They’re a terribly maligned and mistreated minority, their rites are banned, and they’ve been accused of terrible sins against humanity. There’s even a suggestion of the religion passing down in the female line, in Alaric and Duncan’s inheritance from their Deryni mothers—and it was not unheard of for Jewish men to convert and become Christian priests.

Deryni did oppress humans during the Interregnum, which the Jews certainly never did to Christians, but that’s like folding the Roman persecution of Christians into the Jews’ denial of the Christian Messiah. So, maybe that’s where that whole demographic disappeared to.

That would not fly very well in 2016, but this was 1970 or so, we have to remember. Views of women and minorities were different then. The fact that these books center around a persecuted minority is significant in itself, whatever its inspiration, and whatever the worldbuilding might have omitted from the historical Middle Ages.

Meanwhile, back at the plot ranch, what’s with Morgan and Charissa? Ian, Charissa’s evil conspirator, has to go to great magical lengths to channel her through a convenient guardsman in order to make his report, which is nice and dramatic and all, but it does indicate that there’s no easier to way to get to her. Then in the very next chapter, there’s Morgan in the library, and along slinks Charissa, as cool as you please. They have a Bond Villain conversation, in which the snark flies thick and fast, but, I mean, what?

Seriously. Logic faults abound. She has no problem slithering through the palace, and Morgan never even asks her how she got in, nor does he make any effort whatsoever to capture, let alone kill her. I can see where he wouldn’t just off-with-her-head, but why in the world doesn’t he hogtie her and haul her in for trial? Yes, she’d fight back, but he doesn’t even think to try. For that matter, why doesn’t she just blast him where he sits? Morgan dead would make Kelson a sitting target–powerless and unprotected. All she has to do here is hit him with one good magical whammy.

It feels as if the plotting is moving along by “wouldn’t it be cool if,” rather than “this is what needs to happen here in order to get from chapter the first to chapter the last.” So Morgan and Charissa get to trade insults and threaten each other, but it’s all just words. Couldn’t they be trying to maneuver each other magically or physically, to capture or kill, instead of simply snarking at each other? Obviously it wouldn’t succeed since this is a novel rather than a novella, but that way the scene would actually do something instead of leaving this reader going, “Huh?”

Of course when I first read this, I didn’t care. Such snark! So arch, and so witty! So much tension! Such suspense! Oh, the animosity! So deadly and so pretty!

Now I want to get in there and rewrite the thing. Not for prose, that’s doing its job, but for story logic.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, a medieval fantasy that owed a great deal to Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books, 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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