Katherine Kurtz’ Deryni Rising — Precursor to A Game of Thrones?

Provocative title? Sure–and only partially true. But to the obsessive genre reader, Mr. Martin’s unfinished Song of Ice and Fire series can often read like a collage of influences, drawing from a wide range of classics–often with the express intent to subvert or problematize. Or so it seems to this obsessive genre reader, at least.

Katherine Kurtz’ long-running Deryni series, about the Kingdom of Gwynedd and its ruling elite, is arguably one such influence. I’m not sure how direct that influence is, but as I re-read Deryni Rising (1970) it was hard not to think of A Game of Thrones, and imagine the two books in conversation with one another. For example, an oft-cited attraction to A Song of Ice and Fire is its “realism,” which is not to say that the series is “realistic,” per se, but rather to note the series’ embrace of hard-nosed realpolitik contextualized by a world marked by limited access to the magical and metaphysical. Tolkeinic it ain’t, but Kurtzian it may very well be.

Deryni Rising, like A Game of Thrones, takes place in a world notable for how closely it hews to historical example—or at least, to a somewhat outdated understanding of historical example. Basically, imagine high medieval Britain if it had been ruled by Celts rather than Anglo-Normans, but with the Anglo-Norman/high medieval institutions of class, power, and privilege mostly unchanged. The book is also decidedly elite-focused, with all significant characters being of noble or royal blood. Meanwhile, the operative church is functionally identical to Western Christianity of the post-Schism, pre-Reformation period. (They even use Latin, and refer to it as such.)

There is magic in this world—though only a select few can wield it. The eponymous Deryni, a humanoid species born with this ability, were once the only ones who could do so, a fact that led a cabal of sorcerers to establish tyrannical dominion over humanity—a period referred to as the Deryni Interregnum. They were later deposed by another group of Deryni, led by St. Camber of Culdi, who opposed the use of magic to enslave. (One notes, however, that they saw no similar moral conflict in upholding hereditary monarchies.) Significantly, Camber had also discovered that certain humans could “unlock” Deryni powers through a series of occult rituals. He passed this knowledge to the newly restored royal houses, lest any Deryni attempt to re-establish the Interregnum.

Camber’s beneficence, alas, did not lead to a new golden age of human-Deryni coexistence. Rather, humans used their newfound freedom to organize witch-hunts and pogroms against their former masters. Some Deryni managed to hide by marrying humans, which revealed that half- and quarter-Deryni could wield magic too—and apparently without any significant loss of power.

Thus the stage was set for Deryni Rising, which follows young King Kelson from his father’s untimely death to his coronation—where, we learn, the powerful Deryni sorceress Carissa plans to avenge the death of her father at the hands of King Brion and his protégé Lord Alaric Morgan, who is now Kelson’s mentor.

 

The Deryni series was a favorite during my teenage years, and I was glad to see that it has mostly stood the test of time. There is a tight focus on character, as well as on the relationships among them, while the palace intrigue is compellingly presented and well realized. Kurtz does a good job with pacing, for the most part, though the occult rituals are given a bit too much real estate for my tastes. Nevertheless, the book presents a pleasing ratio of intrigue-to-action, and for the most part holds up over the decades since its first publication. And for those who yearn for the days when fantasy wasn’t so cynical, there is a palpable enthusiasm to the text that often feels missing from newer, grimmer fare.

In other respects, Deryni Rising shows its age. The lack of interest in common people is one problematic aspect; the portrayal of women, surprisingly, is another. Recall that, in the introductory essay to this series, I criticized Glen Cook’s The Black Company for the relative lack of women in that novel, but women come off much worse in Deryni Rising. See, whereas The Lady is complex and Darling sympathetic, Charissa is monotonically evil, while Queen Regent Jehana is petty, selfish and prone to emotional outbursts. That surprised me, frankly. But it’s unavoidable.

As far as the politics go, Deryni Rising is first and foremost about institutions of power in a high medieval setting. The validity of traditional authority and hereditary rule are unquestioned—Kelson is just because Haldanes are just, and Haldane rule is legitimate in Gwynedd. Meanwhile his power comes, in large part, from his access to Deryni magic through a series of arcane rituals performed behind closed doors and only known to a cabal of three, comprising Kelson, Morgan, and Father Duncan McLain, who is also half Deryni.

The choice to make Deryni magic hereditary, and the gift of specifically Deryni blood, is also interesting, as it positions the Deryni as both unusually powerful yet oppressed. Comics readers will recognize the same tension driving the X-Men, particularly in the case of Chris Claremont’s run in the 1980s and 1990s—a narrative theme Kurtz anticipates here. It isn’t particularly developed in this specific book, though if memory serves, it factors more heavily into subsequent volumes of the series (e.g. The Bishop’s Heir). Kurtz also sets up future clashes between secular and ecclesiastical power, with the Deryni caught in between (unsurprisingly, there are those in the church who are implacably hostile to anything Deryni).

 

At the outset of this review, I asked readers to consider potential linkages between Deryni Rising and George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones—the volume of A Song of Ice and Fire most tightly focused on court intrigue rather than war. That A Game of Thrones arguably follows—and in other ways arguably problematizes—the Romantic assumptions of Kurtz’s work is, in my view, supported by the observations discussed above. But rather than telegraph those connections, I would instead ask readers of this column to consider the directness of those connections, as well as the possibility that Deryni Rising simply embodies a broader Romantic ideal in fantasy (that A Game of Thrones is willfully deconstructing), rather than a direct or immediate influence.

Lastly, I will note that my return to Gwynedd has been a mostly joyful occasion. The books are still quite readable, and the characters have held up well over the years. There are some neat political themes explored, though also a lot of unproblematized biases that could have been problematized to great effect. But that’s, in part, a function of the book’s age. Nevertheless, readers seeking an enjoyable, thought-provoking slice of fantasy nostalgia will find much to enjoy here.

The G is founder and co-editor of the group blog ‘nerds of a feather, flock together’, which covers SF/F and crime fiction, comics, cult films and video games. He moonlights as an academic.

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