Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Deryni Rising, Chapters 1-3

Welcome to the weekly reread of Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni Rising! I’m reading from the original edition, so if you’re following along with the later, revised version, there may be some differences between what I’m reading and what you’re seeing. If so, don’t hesitate to comment. It’s quite interesting to see what an author may want to change, and what she’ll have kept.

So, here we go. Chapter 1, book 1 in publishing order. Our first introduction to the world and characters.

 

Deryni Rising: Chapters 1-3

Here’s What Happens: In Chapter 1, the first thing we see is King Brion Haldane on a horse, dramatically posed at the top of a hill. He’s described lovingly and in detail, and we learn all about who he is, what kind of person he is, and how people react to him. He’s a hero-king, and he’s been king for a while: fifteen years. And there’s this tantalizing hint of “forbidden magic.”

He’s on a hunt, we learn, and his escort is invisible but clearly audible. Then we learn that he’s hunting deer, and Queen Jehana is expecting venison for dinner. Someone named Ewan has brought out untrained puppies for the hunt. King Brion is amused.

So is the next arrival, a boy who turns out to be Brion’s son Kelson. They talk about the hunt and the puppies, and someone named Morgan, whom they are missing—with another hint of mysterious magic.

They discuss Morgan. Viewpoints shift back and forth. Intrigue is afoot. Kelson is eerily perceptive, which makes his father uneasy. We learn that he’s almost fourteen, which is legal adulthood in this world.

Morgan is not hugely popular, it seems. He’s off in a place called Cardosa, dealing with a crisis: Wencit of Torenth wants the place, and there’s a threat of war.

They discuss the concept of war, and the fact that Brion’s reign has been peaceful. Then Kelson mentions someone called the Shadowed One. Brion is shocked to the core. Kelson admits that Morgan told him about this entity, and asks if Brion is angry.

Brion, it turns out, is thrilled. Kelson is wonderful! He’s turned out exactly the way his father hoped.

Then he inserts a somber note. If anything happens to him, he makes Kelson promise to summon Morgan.

In the next scene, Brion and Kelson finally join the hunt, with banter and byplay. We meet, among others, Prince Nigel, Kelson’s uncle (he’ll be a major player later), and the loud-voiced Lord Ewan.

The hunt takes off, but one person quietly evaporates: Yousef the Moor. He’s gone to meet with none other than Lady Charissa, also known as the Shadowed One. In short order, someone else joins the party: Lord Ian Howell, who reports that the king has drunk “the wine” and their plot is proceeding as planned.

That plot is clearly murderous. They disagree about Kelson: Ian wants him killed now, Charissa is saving him for later. She has her sights set on Morgan, whom they spend some time discussing.

For the first time we hear the word Deryni. Alaric is half-blood Deryni, and he killed Charissa’s father fifteen years ago. We learn about the Camberian Council, and the human-Deryni conflict. We also learn that our villains are plotting to kill Brion with Deryni magic, and that Deryni once ruled this kingdom of Gwynedd.

After a page or two more of sexually charged bickering and badinage, Ian and Charissa part. Ian returns to the hunt and the next stage of the plot.

The hounds are being obstreperous. Then suddenly, Brion collapses in agony. He just has time to remind Kelson of his promise before he dies.

The death scene transforms into ritual as Bishop Arilan performs the last rites. Kelson observes the reactions of various lords and relatives, until Nigel reminds Kelson that he is now king. Kelson masters himself and sends for General Morgan.

Chapter Two tunes in two weeks later with the arrival of Morgan and his aide, Derry, in the city of Rhemuth. Morgan is brooding and grieving while the city bustles around him. Derry is injured, and Morgan is concerned.

Suddenly they’re interrupted by the entourage of the Supreme of Howicce, one of whom is extremely rude to the two men, complete with homophobic slur. Morgan takes careful note of the entourage, and informs Derry that he’s about to “teach them a lesson.” This takes the form of the rude man’s whip suddenly wrapping itself around his horse’s legs and dumping him in the street.

Morgan and Derry exchange banter about this development. Morgan is quite smug.

They enter the palace amid chaos, about which Morgan is analytical. For the first time we hear the name of Duncan McLain, “on whom so much would depend later today.”

It’s quickly clear that Morgan is in considerable trouble with the Regency Council, and that the rumor campaign against him (which we know was started and nurtured by Ian and Charissa) has been effective. Morgan sends Derry to stall them while he “gets to work,” which involves walking through court while lords and ladies stare and recoil from the “evil Deryni sorcerer.” For a second time we see Morgan’s antic side as he decides to give them something to be horrified about. He strikes a dramatic pose and sweeps past them into the enormous royal hall.

The decor of the hall is suitably spectacular, complete with massive banner depicting the Lion of Gwynedd, the making of which Morgan recalls, along with his first sight of it, and King Brion, as a young child. He then ponders his own banner, the Gryphon of Corwyn, and his own pedigree, lands, and family.

He is interrupted by politics and a new wave of grief as he reveals that Kelson’s messengers, Lord Ralson and Colin, and several others of his escort are dead in the ambush that also gave Derry his wound. Ian, who is in the group that welcomes Morgan, is not so subtly snarky. Bran Coris is antagonistic. Kevin McLain is conciliatory. And we learn that the queen is not Morgan’s friend.

Nigel defuses the situation and extracts Morgan from the hall, while Ian ponders the further ramifications of his plot and the attendant politics.

Once they’re alone, Morgan notices how worn Nigel is. The Queen is planning to charge Morgan with Brion’s death, Nigel tells him, though Morgan reminds him that couldn’t have been done by Deryni magic at that distance. Kelson thinks Charissa was involved, Nigel says. Morgan concurs.

They discuss the situation, including whether Kelson is mature enough yet to shift the Council in Morgan’s favor. Nigel tells Morgan what Jehana’s charges will be: treason and heresy. They go on at some length about politics and the people involved. We learn that Kelson may have magical powers enough to defeat Charissa, but Morgan has to activate them in some way.

When Nigel withdraws, Morgan ponders the situation further, particularly the personality of the strongly anti-Deryni, fiercely anti-Morgan queen. There’s a pause for a not so brief history of the Church, the Deryni, and the Deryni Interregnum, when Deryni ruled and humans suffered. Humans, it seems, can acquire Deryni powers—and here we first learn of Camber of Culdi.

In the present of this book, Deryni are a deeply hated and heavily persecuted minority. At the same time, the kings of Gwynedd have magical powers bestowed on them by ritual, but those are revered rather than loathed.

Morgan helped Brion overcome the Marluk, who was attempting to restore Deryni rule, by means of Deryni magic. Once the queen found this out, she became Morgan’s steadfast enemy.

Morgan’s reflections come to an end as Kelson appears, escorted by Kevin. Morgan takes him in at length, and lengthily records his likeness to Brion. Kelson meanwhile is torn between a boy’s desire to run to Morgan for solace, and the fact that he’s now a man and a king. Kelson feels responsible for Ralson and Colin’s deaths. Morgan reassures him.

Kevin, having left them, meets and introduces himself to Derry. Morgan is in serious trouble, Kevin says. Derry agrees. The penalty for both treason and heresy is death.

Chapter Three introduces Jehana herself, doing the mirror thing: gazing at her reflection and describing herself as she goes. She’s grieving for Brion, and she’s deeply angry. She knows he would never approve of her vendetta against Morgan. She is determined that her son will remain mortal and free of magical powers.

This is not an easy decision for her. She has to take time to compose herself, and to gather strength.

Nigel meanwhile is in a right temper, and he’s demanding to see the Queen. The Queen is ready for him. They face off in her rose arbor.

Shift to Morgan and Kelson, discussing how and why Jehana hates Morgan so much. Kelson is frustrated about how young he is, but Morgan is confident that he has what it takes. Morgan resolves to be both father and brother to him. Then he tells Kelson at length how wonderful he is.

Kelson wants to know about the Shadowed One, and about Morgan’s mission to Cardosa. He lets Morgan know he sensed magic in Brion’s death. Morgan asks him to recall, in detail, what happened on the hunt.

Back to Jehana and Nigel, facing off over whether Kelson should be allowed to receive his powers. Jehana is heavy on the religious angle. Nigel tries to explain the hereditary nature of the Haldane powers (which only appear in the males). Jehana is stubborn. Nigel plays the love card—if you loved Brion you’d love all of him, Brion was special, Brion was magic. She isn’t playing.

She doesn’t get that he died from magic, either. Nigel spells out in detail what actually happened. Jehana is in full denial. She throws him out.

Nigel’s attempt to win her over has backfired hugely. She’s more determined than ever to keep Kelson from coming into his powers. She sends for him.

Back in the garden, Kelson and Morgan are wrapping up the investigation. Jehana didn’t let anyone examine Brion’s body—she rushed him to burial. They discuss this.

From this we learn that Father Duncan is Kelson’s tutor, and that Morgan wonders if Jehana was involved in the assassination plot. Kelson denies that heatedly. Morgan says he doesn’t trust her at all.

Suddenly Morgan sees a poisonous creature next to Kelson’s hand. He kills it with his sword—just in time for a passing lady to have a complete shrieking meltdown.

Morgan is scornful about the “silly woman’s hysterical screaming.” The guards stand down as they realize that really happened. Morgan tells Kelson that the creature is a Stenrect crawler. “There is no antidote for the sting of a Stenrect.”

There’s a pause for explication of the myth and legend of the Stenrect. The guards are nervous: they might have offended the powerful Deryni. Their captain apologizes profusely. So does Lady Elvira.

Guards and lady withdraw. Morgan is snarky. He and Kelson discuss the Stenrect. It’s meant to intimidate rather than kill, they conclude.

They then go to see Father Duncan. Kelson catches on to the fact that Duncan has the key to his powers. He’s happy about it.

They’re interrupted by another woman, “the flighty and overexcitable Lady Esther,” who brings Kelson Jehana’s summons. She’s all fluttery and full of italics, and when she finds out who Morgan is, she flutters even more flightily.

Morgan schools her in the proper way to treat the new king, and Kelson, patronizingly, extracts from her the reason for her arrival.

He grandly declines the summons. She flutters off. Kelson and Morgan are snarky about the Queen’s ladies. Then they get back to their very important man-business.

Jehana enters the council chamber with Nigel, and takes stock in some detail. She’s confident about the level of support for her plan. As she calls the council to order, Nigel asks for a delay, so that Kelson can be present to hear “certain charges.”

Jehana refuses. If Kelson can’t be bothered to be on time, the council will proceed without him. She leans on his immaturity, and on the fact that he’s under regency.

Nigel can’t stop her, and Ewan, the Lord Marshal, doesn’t try. She launches directly into her attack on “Lord General Alaric Anthony Morgan—the Deryni!”

 

And I’m Thinking: Honey, I’m home! This opening has my name all over it, even after all these years. Gorgeous medieval settings, resounding character names, magic and intrigue and danger and daring. Even where it’s over the top, it’s over the top in ways that make me smile. Kelson is wonderful and full of amazing potential, Alaric is dashing, the villains are quietly, dangerously evil. And I still love Derry after all these years. He’s Sam Gamgee at human height and with the British classist tics smoothed out. (I do love Sam Gamgee, tics and all.)

Oh, there are flaws. Alaric is terribly immature and emotionally inconsistent. One moment he’s prostrate with grief, the next he’s playing schoolboy pranks. I loved the trick with the whip when I was still a teenager myself, thought it was hilarious. Now I’m like, you’re his majesty’s lord and general and the poster child for your hated minority, and this is how you use (or abuse) your powers?

And the women. Oy. There will be some decent female characters later, but here they’re either stupid and evil, evil and conniving, or silly and stupid. The world is clearly and unquestioningly male-dominated, and all the good guys so far are male. Women are absolutely inferior, and it’s just assumed that that’s how it is.

Which is very much in period—not just for the Middle Ages, this being approximately the twelfth century or so albeit in a secondary world, but for the late Sixties and early Seventies.

We see a small bit of homophobia, but not too bad considering. Neither Morgan nor Derry gets seriously upset about it—they’re a lot more honked off by the rude pushiness of the man from Howicce. (I wonder how much slash fanfic this series has accumulated—Morgan/Derry just for starters.)

There’s some casual racism, too, between the Supreme of Howicce (who seems to be some sort of exoticized foreign blowhard) and the evil Moors. Though the latter is painfully contemporary, right about now. It’s a very white world and very Christian, which in 1970 would have gone completely without saying.

And yet. The fundamental conflict of the books is essentially one of race and heritage: magical Deryni versus unmagical humans. The Deryni abused their power abominably, and paid for it when the humans rose up and crushed them. The humans have persecuted the Deryni in their turn, and perpetrated injustices that are clearly evident in the way Alaric is treated.

There’s quite a bit of depth in the worldbuilding, and a profound knowledge of and understanding for the religious underpinnings of the Middle Ages. So much modern medievalist writing takes a Protestant stance: Church bad, free-thinking modern attitudes good. Kurtz’s world is more truly medieval in both the ubiquity of its Church and the complexity of that Church’s relationship to the secular world.

I was expecting the writing not to hold up at all—I thought I’d wince as I read. But I didn’t, though I couldn’t help but recall the grand trashing of the scene between Morgan and Nigel by Ursula Le Guin in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” She was particularly unimpressed with the political practicality and the low-flying prose, which culminates for her with “I could have told you that at Cardosa.”

But you know what? As I read it, it actually worked. This is not the high fantasy of Tolkien or Lord Dunsany or even Charles Williams, and certainly not Le Guin herself. It’s not meant for the beauty that burns like cold iron, as C.S. Lewis (himself a fairly decent prose stylist) said of Tolkien. It’s something else: something all its own, with its own reasons for doing what it does.

I’ve seen far worse prose in fantasy; prose that makes my teeth grind and my head hurt and ends with my throwing the book at the wall. I’m not throwing this. I’m reading it with honest enjoyment.

Kurtz’s prose  makes that possible. It’s utilitarian. It’s transparent. It exists to get the story told and the characters interacting. It’s not there to be noticed. It’s there to get the job done.

And it does. This is fantasy of a kind that’s since become standard—the most famous example being Game of Thrones, but also much of the fantasy of the Eighties and Nineties and all the way up into the new millennium. We’re in a world of remarkably real-seeming people with real motivations and real interactions.

Kelson is a leeetle bit too wonderful for words, and Morgan is rather a Mary Sue, and oy, those awful females, but it doesn’t matter. There’s a vividness here, a vigor and sparkle to the world and the story, that sucks me right in—just as much now as when I was a teenager discovering it for the first time.

And that makes me happy.

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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