Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Deryni Checkmate, Chapters 1-3

Welcome to the weekly reread of Katherine Kurtz’s first Deryni trilogy!

This week we begin volume II: Deryni Checkmate. Kelson is now king, and it’s the spring of a new year. Our three favorite Deryni—Morgan, Duncan, and Kelson—are beset with storms both meteorological and political. The Church has it in for the king’s Deryni, there’s an anti-Deryni rebellion in Morgan’s own duchy, and an evil Deryni king is threatening to invade the kingdom of Gwynedd.


Deryni Checkmate: Chapters 1-3

Here’s What Happens: It’s Chapter 1, it’s March, four months after Kelson’s coronation, and the weather is frightful. At length. In detail. Our narrative camera slowly pans across the royal city, until finally it focuses on a meeting between Archbishops Loris and Corrigan, attended by “a youngish-looking priest-secretary.”

The two prelates are up to no good at all. They’re about to place Morgan’s Duchy of Corwyn under Interdict, which is a terrible, terrible thing: it denies all the comfort of the Church to the entire population of the duchy. We’re told, at length, why that’s so terrible, and why the archbishops are doing it: to punish Morgan, of course, for being Deryni.

Corrigan is not totally on board. This is Loris’ idea, and Corrigan doubts Corwyn’s Bishop Tolliver will go along with the edict. He and Loris discuss the politics and personalities involved, while the secretary, Father Hugh, stands by. There’s an anti-Deryni rebellion in the north of Corwyn, led by someone named Warin, which could be useful, says Loris, but Corrigan is doubtful about that, too.

Loris plans to send his loyal henchman, Monsignor Gorony, to Corwyn to deliver the edict and meet with Warin. None of this, of course, is to be known to Kelson. It’s a secret.

When Gorony arrives, they discuss a second proceeding: some sort of suspension. They send Father Hugh off to summon the culprit, then send Gorony on his way to Corwyn.

Father Hugh is not happy with his orders, or with the rest of what he’s seen and heard. He stops outside to sum up the events of the first book and to worry about the political situation. There’s more at stake than anti-Deryni bigotry inside of Gwynedd: the kingdom is under threat from an external force, “the Deryni tyrant Wencit of Torenth.” Gwynedd needs Morgan in order to survive.

Hugh decides to warn the king. But first he has to make sure the archbishop’s letter gets delivered. He checks the address—and is shocked. It’s meant for Duncan McLain.

Duncan has been suspended from the priesthood and summoned in front of an ecclesiastical tribunal for “consorting with heretics.” Hugh has to warn the king, but he also has to warn Duncan. This is as horrible for Duncan as the Interdict is for Corwyn.

Hugh delegates the letter’s delivery to a subordinate and sets off in search of Kelson.

As Chapter 2 opens, Kelson is having a nice private dinner with Duncan and Prince Nigel. Duncan enlivens the proceedings by somewhat explosively helping Nigel open a bottle of wine, using Deryni magic. We get a thorough description of the people, the setting, and the wine spurting everywhere.

Duncan is still grieving for King Brion, and is worried about the political situation. There’s an interlude with a very young and adorably serious page, who turns out to be Nigel’s youngest son, which allows Kelson to muse about his own turn as a page. The conversation wanders leisurely through Duncan’s arrangements for getting home tonight, Kelson’s squire’s family and prospects, the situation with Wencit and the city of Cardosa, and Kelson’s doubts and fears about his ability to handle it all.

The squire announces the arrival of Father Hugh—who pushes past him and nearly gets spitted for it. Duncan recognizes him, which allows Hugh, at some leisure, to show the Kelson and Duncan a copy of the Interdict against Corwyn.

They all discuss the situation. Duncan is furious, but his brain is working. He explains to Kelson what the decree means, and questions Hugh further. In the process, he learns about his suspension and his summons to trial.

Duncan is stunned. He recovers enough to advise Kelson to send him to Morgan with news of the Interdict—which will remove him from Corrigan’s jurisdiction.

They all thank Father Hugh for his service. Hugh is totally on their side. The meeting winds down slowly, as Nigel goes to set up Duncan’s escort, and Duncan does his best to help Kelson process what’s just happened.

Kelson is scared. Duncan talks him through it. They consider the various political and religious implications of tonight’s developments, and conclude that it’s Kelson’s mother’s fault.

With this we flash back to a scene with Queen Jehana packing and Kelson trying to talk her out of it. Jehana is bound and determined to take her massive self-doubts and primordial guilt about her Deryni heritage to a place called St. Giles and also Shannis Meer—despite the fact that it’s smack in the middle of the potential war zone and under Archbishop Loris’ jurisdiction—because she stayed there once and by God, that’s where she’s going now. She can’t deal. She has to run away.

There is pleading. There is shaking. There is sobbing. Kelson even raises the threat of a royal command. But Jehana is going to St. Giles and that is that.

The narrative returns to the stormy March night. Kelson and Duncan continue to discuss the situation. It’s all about individual choice and the question of whether a person is born evil or becomes evil through what he does.

It’s deep stuff. Kelson declares that he’s not afraid any more. With some last priestly/fatherly advice, Duncan leaves, promising to see Kelson in Culdi “in a week or so.”

With Chapter 3, we shift to Corwyn, where Morgan is yawning through a very dull session with his accountant. Poor Lord Robert has to put up with Morgan’s boredom, inattention, and begging to put it all off until tomorrow. There’s a wedding in two weeks, Lord Robert points out, and an embassy arriving, and then there’s the Warin problem.

Morgan doesn’t care. He’s bored. Robert muses that he probably has “good reason” for postponing, but it’s still frustrating.

Robert will get his revenge. There’s a state dinner tonight, and a number of eligible ladies attending. That will annoy Morgan most satisfactorily.

Morgan, having made his escape, find Sean Derry arguing shoeing methods with the castle blacksmith, but he evades his friend/loyal retainer and retreats to the gardens. There’s a great deal on his mind, all of which we’ve seen in the previous chapters, and we get a special bonus Mirror (actually water-reflection) Moment in which Morgan admires himself, if not his outfit. It’s froofy, it’s green, and the ornamental dagger is too ornamental. But he has other, concealed weapons, and he plans to wear hidden mail tonight. Morgan is not a trusting person.

Suddenly the garrison commander appears and reports that Morgan’s fleet, including his flagship, is about to reach the harbor. It’s not supposed to be here, and Kelson wouldn’t send a message by water. Morgan wonders what’s going on. (We know, from chapter 1, that Gorony is on board with the decree of Interdict.)

Morgan is worried. He had a disturbing dream last night, which seems to have been somewhat prophetic, and featured Kelson, Duncan, and the cowled figure from the coronation, who may or may not have been Saint Camber.

He finds himself at the Grotto of the Hours, the ancient meditation spot of the Dukes of Corwyn, where the first duke is buried. He explores it, in detail, and ends up by the seal of Saint Camber, pondering at length the history and tragedy of Camber’s sainthood and the violent end of the Deryni Interregnum.

He keeps coming back to his own visions, wondering over and over if it’s really Camber or something else. Then suddenly Derry appears, calling him to welcome an unexpected guest: Father Duncan.

They greet each other with banter and badinage, and pass through the Great Hall, where we see, in detail, Lord Robert setting it up for the big state dinner.

The entertainment, a minstrel named Gwydion, is being difficult. Morgan introduces him to Duncan, and Gwydion puts on a great show of offense that he can’t arrange things his way instead of the way Lord Hamilton the seneschal wants them. Morgan cuts that off by telling Gwydion to do what he likes, which does not please Lord Hamilton at all.

Once this problem has been disposed of, Morgan and Duncan escape to Morgan’s very private magical study. It’s round, it’s a tower, and its windows are green.

Morgan has a new toy. It’s in the middle of the tower, and it’s a shiral crystal—extremely rare, extremely expensive, and very powerful. It conjures images, and the first one that Duncan calls up is a furious Archbishop Loris.

Duncan tells Morgan about his suspension. Morgan is shocked and sympathetic. He is even more shocked, and much less sympathetic, when Duncan tells him about the Interdict.

Morgan’s verbal explosion is spectacular. It’s also all about Morgan, though he has some concern for his people. He sends Duncan to Tolliver, to work on him before Gorony gets there, and adds a letter of his own to back Duncan up.

He writes fast. He’s done in fifteen minutes, and Duncan heads out on his new mission.

Once Duncan is gone, Morgan asks Derry if he’d like to help with some magic. Derry is all for it. Morgan wants him to go spying up toward Fathane on the Torenthi border, looking for information about Wencit, Warin, and rumors of Interdict.

The magic is in the medallion Morgan spells for him, a holy medal that will serve as a communications device. Morgan’s magic here is of the Deryni hypnotic variety, and allows him to speak telepathically to Derry through the medal. They agree on specific call times, and Derry learns that the medal represents Saint Camber. He worries about that, and Morgan teases him about keeping his clothes on. “No wenching for you on this trip.”

Meanwhile it’s getting dark, and Duncan is headed back to Morgan in Coroth. The (offstage) meeting with Tolliver went moderately well. Tolliver will delay taking action, but he’s not happy about the Deryni aspect.

Duncan is looking forward to dinner, including the ceremonial aspects Morgan so despises, when suddenly he rounds a bend and finds himself face to face with Camber of Culdi. The vision greets him politely, and the chapter ends.


And I’m Thinking: This is the kind of opening that used to be the thing for serious writers who wanted to be taken seriously. Long, slow, leisurely setup, omniscient narrator offering the god’s-eye view, pages and pages of loving description before finally zeroing in on people, you know, doing things. Or talking about doing things, which could be just as good, especially if it loaded on the backstory and the complicated personalities and the politico-religious intrigue.

Compared to this, the opening of Deryni Rising was short, concise, and heavy on the action. It was character first, worldbuilding after, and everything was about the rapid advance of the plot.

This isn’t a value judgement of either one, btw. It’s an observation about different techniques for getting the job done. I kind of enjoyed the slow buildup here, and rather loved the detail of the world and the setting and even the weather. It’s not a bad way to get back into the story and characters, or to fill in both what’s been happening since the last book, and what happened in that book for readers who might be coming to the series for the first time.

I can’t say how the book might have read to a brand-new reader, since I read the first book first and it’s all been internalized so strongly. I suppose it might be confusing, and it would be awfully slow, wandering around waiting to find out what the book is about.

Once we get going, things pick up, though we’re still in the zone of long, long descriptions and thorough ruminations about events past, present, and future. This is a deeply medievalist storyline, revolving around an obscure religious tactic for bringing recalcitrant people and countries to heel.

When I first read the book as a baby medievalist, I got the horror of both Interdict and excommunication for the medieval mind. To be cut off from the Church would be the absolute worst thing, literally soul-destroying. People would live without necessary rituals and consecrations, and die without hope of heaven, doomed to perpetual torment in hell because their Duke is an evil sorcerer.

Meanwhile Gwynedd is facing a real war with an actual evil sorcerer, and poor Kelson has to find a way to save the kingdom without losing his most trusted advisors. While also having to deal with his very stupid, very selfish, very stubborn mother.

The problematical-women problem we ran into in the first book is totally a thing here. We’ve also got some casual boys-will-be-boys toss-offs in the banter between Morgan and Derry—“wenching,” forsooth. But that was the culture in 1972. Kurtz is inventing a fantasy genre, but she’s completely absorbed the sexism of the time she lives in.

She’s much more interested in her lovely male characters and their increasingly awful predicaments, in the complex politics and the elaborate settings and outfits, and most especially in ritual, both religious and magical. She really has internalized the power of ritual in the Western Middle Ages, and the way the Church created and manipulated it in order to control that part of the world.

It’s still compulsively readable. I’m still joyfully going along for the ride, though it’s much slower and takes many more side trips. The characters keep me coming, and the sense of a fully realized setting.

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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