Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Deryni Rising, Chapters 14-16

Welcome to the weekly reread of Deryni Rising!

We’ve reached the big, and long-awaited, finale. Charissa is making her move, and Kelson has to solve his father’s riddle and activate his powers, or lose both his life and his kingdom. Complete with another sword fight, more Deryni magic—including some from unexpected sources—and a spectacular duel arcane.

 

Deryni Rising: Chapters 14-16

Here’s What Happens: As Chapter 14 opens, Kelson has his back to the action, which allows the tension to stretch out for another couple of pages. He ponders his options, takes note of what he can see, and decides that letting the coronation move closer to its conclusion is a good move.

Then Charissa speaks, and literally flings down the gauntlet. Kelson turns and takes stock of “Charissa’s Moorish emirs,” her Western knights, and, in awed detail, Charissa. And her gorgeous outfit.

Also, her haughty attitude. That makes him angry. They bandy words for a while, with frequent resort to raised eyebrows and cold glares.

Kelson is playing for time. Somehow he has to find the answer to the riddle of the Defender’s Sign, to lock in his powers before Charissa pushes him into the utterly plot-inevitable duel arcane.

His first ploy is to call for a combat of champions. He’s shocked when she introduces Ian on her side. Kelson takes time to think about this, and to bandy words with Ian. Morgan joins the verbal fray.

It quickly becomes physical. Sword-fight! After several pages of choreography, Morgan wins—but as he saunters toward Charissa, smug with victory, Ian (evil to the last) throws his dagger and Charissa (evil from end to end) casts a spell on his chain of office. Choked and trapped, he takes the knife in his shoulder.

While everyone crowds around Morgan, Charissa takes care of Ian. With magic. Permanently.

Now that the opening act is over, Charissa challenges Kelson directly. Kelson stalls a bit longer, and Morgan gives him some advice as to how to fight her. Kelson scans the cathedral, interrupted at some length by more snideness from Charissa—until Jehana can’t take it any more.

Charissa actually coos at her. (Oh, she’s so smarmy and so evil.) Jehana totally loses it and tries to blast her with untrained Deryni powers. It takes some time, and some high(ish) diction, but Charissa swats her down—with Morgan and Duncan doing their best to keep Jehana from being destroyed. She ends up in a trance, and Kelson is out of options, if also confirmed as half Deryni.

The tension strrrrrrrretches as Charissa moves in for the kill, and Kelson’s internal monologue goes on and on and on about where on earth is the Defender’s Sign. Charissa challenges him formally, and boom. Chapter ends.

Chapter 15: Kelson is still trying to figure out the riddle. And suddenly! He sees it! On the floor!

The floor is inlaid with seals of the saints, which he just happened never to have noticed before. And there it is. The seal of Saint Camber. Defender of Men.
Bingo. It takes him a while to get there, with further verbal sparring—this time Kelson is downright snotty, now he’s sure he’s in reach of his powers—and further stretching of tension, as inch by inch he works his way over to the seal. There’s much disdain and some sneering. And some sleight of hand with the gauntlet.

Kelson steps onto the seal. The sneering turns into the formal ritual of challenge.

Kelson isn’t sure the gambit worked, until the spellcasting starts and he instantly knows how to answer Charissa’s opening salvo.

The duel is rather leisurely. Both sides have weaponized bad poetry. Duncan, Morgan, and Nigel provide the color commentary. There’s a light show, and some test shots. The audience is bored, except for the Moors, who have a professional interest in the spells.

Morgan is not doing so well. With Duncan’s help and consent, he decides to try to heal himself. Because Deryni magic in a very public place with the chance of outing Duncan is preferable to simply passing out.

Even Kelson is getting bored, and he’s in the middle of the duel. Then Charissa ups the ante with two stanzas of bad poetry. She calls up a hideous monster from the depths of hell—and Kelson has no idea how to counter it.

Panic! And chapter’s end.

In Chapter 16 and last, Kelson gets a grip, and two stanzas of bad counter-poetry just happen to occur to him. The sun happily obliges with a spotlight as the monster enters the spell zone and spectacularly disintegrates.

The spot just happens to be Camber’s seal. What a coincidence!

This is it, this is the endgame. The bad poetry ramps up to three stanzas of “All right, Charissa, that’s enough, I’m finishing you off now.”

The lights die down. Charissa is actually running scared. But she’s not actually done. She comes back with her own three stanzas, and from there on it’s all light show.

The denouement is relatively quick. Kelson’s red lightsaber*—er, aura—overwhelms Charissa’s blue one, and she shrinks, screaming, into nothingness. Kelson and his “shining white raiment” have won.

*Several years pre-George Lucas, so not really. But still.

Morgan comes to just then, all healed, which Kelson tries to call him on, but Morgan puts him off. The coronation can proceed, but first, Kelson and the now conscious Jehana share a moment, and come to a provisional set of terms.

Archbishop Corrigan crowns Kelson, with high ceremony. Our omniscient narrator lets us know humans only see that, but Deryni see someone else in “the shining golden raiment of the ancient High Deryni Lords,” and hear a different form of the invocation, consecrating Kelson as “king for Human and Deryni.”

Morgan and Duncan speculate about this, and conclude that it’s not Camber. Then Morgan swears fealty to Kelson, leading the rest in that part of the ritual.

Charissa’s followers have disappeared. Everybody seems to be cheering for Kelson. Kelson finishes by stepping in the solar spotlight again, and calling Morgan and Duncan to join him.

The book ends with everybody cheering, and Kelson stepping forth to show himself to his “grateful” people.

 

And I’m Thinking: These chapters are written according to the school of stretching tension until it’s ready to snap, and then stretching it some more. And still more again.

The love of ritual goes so far over the top, even the participants lose interest. Then it turns out that the long, involved, heavily detailed bad-poetry competition is just sparring, and the real battle is a simple contest of magical strength.

Then there’s the iffiness of Morgan healing himself in the middle of it all, with no real point to it except he doesn’t want to pass out, and Duncan totally outing himself after all the fuss about his doing nothing of the sort.

Not to mention the glaring lack of any attempt at security, nothing done to find or capture Charissa’s minions—bad security forces. Bad.

But damn, what a spectacle. This would make amazing television, with the pages and pages of internal monologue condensed into a few well-crafted bits of stage business and actor-emoting, and with very heavy cutting of the poetry. Scriptwritten in Latin and reduced to a line at a time instead of a full stanza, it wouldn’t be bad at all.

For all its flaws of execution, for me, the ending works. It’s flashy, dramatic, there’s plenty of tension, and when Kelson wins, he wins with big bright neon bells on. We’ve got closure for the adventure that began with Brion’s hunt and his death, the villain has died a satisfying and final death, and we’re left with a magical mystery that looks ahead to the next book.

As a reader back in the Seventies, I read this for the characters and the rituals and the stirring adventure. Those things struck chords that made me want to write something like this. Something with a high medieval setting, and strong characters who had plenty to say and magic to conjure with.

Now, as a rereader, I’m still seeing the things that drew me to this book in the first place. I can see the wibbles and wobbles, oy at the plotholes, eyeroll at the depiction of women as universally either villains or idiots, but I still love it. It’s still my kind of book.

It even dawns on me that while my fascination with the Muslim side of the Crusades owes a great deal more to my academic background and my equestrian ditto (all that research into Arabian bloodlines led in some interesting directions), it’s possible that the Moors here, watching the duel with educated interest, made me pay just a little bit more attention to their culture and history. It’s a throwaway line, but still. Sometimes what we pick up doesn’t show its true usefulness till much later.

So now Kelson is finally crowned, his powers are fully installed, and we’re ready for the next stage of the adventure. We’ll be back next week, same time, same station, with the first installment of the reread of Deryni Checkmate.

Judith Tarr’s first novel, The Isle of Glass, a medieval fantasy that owes 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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