Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Deryni Checkmate, Chapters 4-6

Welcome to the weekly reread of Deryni Checkmate!

Last week we got a long slow set-up for the novel ahead, focusing on the political situation and catching up with the cast of characters. This week the mysterious stranger continues to be mysterious, bored Morgan is terribly bored, and we meet Morgan’s sister Bronwyn and her soon to be husband and in-laws. Meanwhile our favorite sidekick, Sean Derry, embarks on a dangerous adventure.

 

Deryni Checkmate: Chapters 4-6

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 4 moves on from the patented Kurtz cliffhanger at the end of Chapter 3. The mysterious stranger on the road has addressed Duncan by his secret name, Duncan of Corwyn. Duncan is startled and wary. The stranger is mysterious and full of wise advice.

He warns Duncan that there is trouble ahead, and calls him out on whether he’s still a priest. The stranger knows much more than he should, of things that Duncan thought secret or private. He advises Duncan to reconsider the exact nature of his calling, and vanishes. Duncan is left baffled and disturbed, and not at all sure what just happened, or with whom.

Meanwhile, back at the castle, Morgan’s surgeon is circulating through the court, listening in on conversations. Some of these refer to Warin, along with some muttering about Morgan’s possible secret alliance with the evil Wencit of Torenth.

As Master Randolph worries about the Warin situation, Morgan, backstage, has to deal with another spat between the minstrel Gwydion and his seneschal. He hears Randolph’s report, puts an end to the bickering, and makes his entrance. Morgan is gorgeous, of course, in sleek and sexy black. With lots of sexy weapons concealed about his person.

Duncan finally makes it home, slowed down by a lame horse, in time to hear the end of Gwydion’s tragic ballad, of which we get a verse. (It’s not nearly as terrible as the bad-poetry contest in Book I.) Morgan sees him and slips away for a quick private report. Duncan wants an even more private meeting, well away from the hall. But Morgan has to go back and play host. Duncan frets in the tower room. He’s quite upset.

Morgan finally comes in, and Duncan tells him about the mysterious stranger. The recap is about as long as the original scene. They speculate about who he is and whether he’s even real. Finally Morgan leaves Duncan in the tower and goes off to his bed.

In Chapter 5, Morgan is bored again with his ducal duties. He ponders that, lengthily, along with the fact that it looks as if the Interdict will happen. He sent Duncan back to Tolliver, with even less reassuring results than before.

Suddenly Gwydion arrives. There’s some byplay with Robert, who wants to keep working, but Morgan dismisses him. (Poor Robert.) Once Robert has reluctantly taken his leave, Gwydion takes a little while to come around to what he’s there for. Finally he sings an actually quite catchy ditty, with lyrics that are not comforting at all. They’re a warning to Morgan, with thinly veiled death threat.

Gwydion goes on with another, similar, if less catchy and more portentous ballad, in multiple stanzas. He then notes that he’s hearing a lot of both. The songs are all over the city. He proposes some counter-propaganda, but before he can get anywhere with that, the Hort of Orsal’s ambassador shows up. After a round of hearty banter with Morgan, the short but stalwart Lord Rather extends an invitation from his overlord, to visit Orsal and discuss “certain matters of navigation rights and defense.”

This, we learn, is crucial to the war against Wencit. Morgan agrees to sail to Orsal in the morning. We learn that the Hort is terribly sorry to have missed the duel at Kelson’s coronation.

Once all this is dealt with, we’re back with Robert, droning on, this time about Morgan’s sister’s dowry, and Morgan, bored. Suddenly Duncan shows up, scantily attired after sword practice, with a letter from Bronwyn herself.

Bronwyn is at full burble. She’s marrying Duncan’s brother Kevin in Culdi (so that’s what that was about with Kelson, back along), and she’s deliriously happy. She wants to know if she can borrow Gwydion for the wedding.

Duncan and Morgan discuss the love match between confirmed bachelor Kevin and determined half-Deryni Bronwyn, then Morgan tells Robert to send Gwydion to Culdi. And now, says Morgan, he has to get through the rest of the utterly boring day of administrative boredom, which bores him to no end.

Bronwyn, meanwhile, is having a glorious time packing all her gorgeous gowns for the trip to Culdi. We get a detailed view of the ladies’ bower and the ladies in it, including the beautiful Bronwyn and the plain, motherly Lady Margaret. We learn that Kevin is the offspring of Duke Jared’s first wife, and Duncan of his second, Lady Vera, who died a few years ago. This tells us Kevin is full human and Vera was Morgan’s mother’s secret twin sister. Margaret is the third wife “who had taught Jared how to love again.”

She’s very much interested in this wedding, since Kevin is the only viable heir, with Duncan being a celibate priest. This marriage is extremely important in dynastic terms.

The two ladies interact comfortably and with clear affection. Margaret gives Bronwyn a family heirloom: a spectacular diamond tiara. They spend quite some time admiring it and trying it on, then admiring it some more, until Jared arrives and is treated to a delighted hug from Bronwyn.

The gentle banter and deep affection continue—Jared and Vera, then Margaret, raised Bronwyn and her brother, so there’s quite a bit of parental feeling there. We learn that Jared has been being a duke, just as Morgan has, but with much more evident aptitude for the job.

Jared has brought a gift of his own: a strange white-haired man whose history we learn, and which includes a life-altering, hair-whitening run-in with a “Deryni witch.” Rimmell is an architect, and he’s designing a new winter palace in Kierney, as a wedding gift for Kevin and Bronwyn. There is much banter and burbling and teasing.

Rimmell does not approve of this Deryni woman. He disapproves at length, until Kevin calls from outside. He has a gift for his bride, too: “the most beautiful palfrey I’ve ever seen!” cries Bronwyn. She rushes off to try the mare, and Rimmell stays behind, disapproving, and yearning. He wants Bronwyn. He wants her terribly. He must have her or die.

He watches from the balcony as the lovers meet adorably. He has made up his mind. He is going to stop this wedding. He has to have Bronwyn for himself.

On this ominous note, the chapter ends. Chapter 6 finds us in a tavern with an apparently sloshed Derry. He’s in Fathane and his spying mission is going well. He rolls on out, notably more sober than he’s working hard to appear, and narrowly escapes being drugged and captured. He kills one of the attackers and overpowers the other, takes the drug and “some papers he didn’t have time to read just now,” and leaves the suspiciously full purses. Then, extremely reluctantly and with a number of rather anguished rationalizations, he kills the second man and continues his pretense of drunkenness all the way to the door of his room.

Morgan is getting ready to contact Derry. Duncan comes in and argues in favor of providing backup. Derry starts to open the link.

Scene change: Derry in his room. He’s read the papers and discovered that the attackers were Torenthi spies. Derry frets over having to kill them, though it was clearly the only way, and also frets over the danger of being outed as the murderer.

He tunes in to the medallion to make his report, after a flash of surprise at Duncan’s presence. (He didn’t know Duncan is Deryni.) Morgan asks to examine the drug, which Duncan tentatively identifies as “a truth potion.” Derry frets about this. Morgan orders him to destroy the papers and the drug, and tells him to come back to Coroth in two days, after a bit of further spying. They leave it that Morgan will open the connection at the same time tomorrow, but Derry will only reach out again if necessary, “because we can’t afford the energy drain on a regular basis.”

The conversation ends. Derry pauses to react to the fact that he’s been doing magic, then destroys the papers and the potion, makes sure the Camber medallion is well concealed, and goes to sleep.

 

And I’m Thinking: It’s interesting how much happens here, and how carefully grounded it is in setting and characters. We learn that there’s a wedding coming up, that there’s a war brewing, and that Derry continues to be Morgan’s all-purpose go-to guy.

(I usually don’t shadow-cast, but I keep seeing Derry as Sean Astin in the Lord of the Rings films. Hello, Sam Gamgee! We’ve missed you.)

Morgan is a horrendous spoiled brat in these chapters. He doesn’t want to do his job, it’s bo-ring. Governing the duchy that gives him his status, his wealth, and the means to buy the gorgeous outfits he sniffs at and the sleek sexy ones he loves to slink around in is for balding middle-aged henchmen who exist to put up with his tantrums.

It’s interesting that his foil in the tantrum department is the flamboyant but fundamentally sharp and savvy minstrel, Gwydion. Gwydion gets his way, too, because he’s ever so much flashier than the grey functionaries who are just trying to do their jobs.

This is bad statesmanship but great swashbuckling. We’re supposed to laugh indulgently at Bored Morgan Is Ever So Bored, roll our eyes at the dull, boring drones, and sing along with the multiple verses of songs.

Poetry in fantasy was a big thing back in 1972(ish). Tolkien did it, and that meant everybody did it. Even Anne McCaffrey, writing what were then regarded as science-fiction novels with scientifically developed dragons, filled her books with scraps of verse. It’s kind of squirmy now. Fantasy fashion has moved on, and in this case I think it’s just as well. Some good-to-great prose stylists are also accomplished poets—Jane Yolen comes to mind—but for the most part, prose writers are better off to stick to prose.

Still, we do get a sense of how fully realized the world is, and how strong a role music and song play in the culture. There’s a propaganda war on, and it’s literally playing out in the streets and the taverns, in song and verse. That’s classically Welsh and Celtic, and Gwydion’s name points right toward it.

We also, for the first time in this series, meet women who are not either villains or idiots. They’re still trope-y, but they’re positive tropes: the Wise Motherly Older Woman Who Is Not Beautiful, the Beautiful Bride.

It’s the first actual functional family we’ve seen, and the women are firmly established in the women’s place: the ladies’ bower, the beautiful gowns, the extravagant wedding gifts. Some of Morgan’s bored brattiness is over his sister’s dowry, which he is in charge of; because a woman is a man’s property, to be handed over by her family to her husband’s family. This is solidly medieval. It’s making no effort to examine or question—it simply accepts.

Marriage as portrayed here is pretty accurate in medieval terms: a financial and familial transaction. If love also comes into it, so much the better. Which here of course it does, with a doubled trope of experienced older woman teaching grieving widower to love again and beautiful young woman teaching confirmed bachelor to love for the first time.

I can see the ideals of the 1950s and ’60s here. Men work in offices and do the hard, boring stuff and Run Things (even when they don’t wanna). Women exist to enhance their men. Which of course is all they want in life, and all they need.

The background music with its joyous romantic theme turns darkly ominous at the end of Bronwyn’s chapter. There’s a love triangle happening, and it’s tainted with anti-Deryni bigotry, though Rimmell has reason to fear Deryni: he was visibly and permanently damaged by one as a child.

Rimmell is a creeper. He doesn’t see Bronwyn as a person at all. She’s an object to be possessed, and He Wants It, Yessss, Preciousss. It’s obvious that Bronwyn barely notices he exists—she’s all gaga over the doughty Lord Kevin—and that, in trope-land, is not a good thing.

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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