Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Deryni Checkmate, Chapters 16-18

Welcome to the the final weekly reread of Deryni Checkmate! That’s right, we’ve reached the denouement, and next week we’ll move on to High Deryni. But this week, the world comes crashing down.

A badly set spell triggers, with devastating consequences. The Curia of Gwynedd finds itself divided over the Deryni question, and Morgan and Duncan face their demons.


Deryni Checkmate: Chapters 16-18

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 16 opens with Bronwyn and Kevin “cavorting in the garden like a pair of mischievous children.” Duke Jared, indulgent, interrupts. He has guests, including Rimmell and none other than Kelson, who has brought Gwydion to play at the wedding.

Gwydion is fulsome in his admiration of Bronwyn, and offers to play for her right here and now. Kelson gives his royal permission.

While Gwydion entertains the guests, Kelson and Kevin step aside for a business meeting. Duncan is missing, and Kelson fills Kevin in on events, including Duncan’s suspension, the Interdict, and the Warin rebellion. Kelson is remarkably mature and self-aware. He asks Kevin to keep all this from the rest of the guests, and Kevin agrees.

Just as the meeting concludes, Gwydion prevails on Bronwyn to play for him. Rimmell eagerly volunteers to fetch her lute.

Rimmell is thrilled. He now has a golden opportunity to set the charm Bethane gave him. He decides to leave it among the shiny things on Bronwyn’s dresser. Once it’s in place, he trips merrily out, in time to catch Gwydion singing, ironically enough, a ditty about unrequited love.

An hour passes. Gwydion’s concert is over. Bronwyn is all giggles and nose-wrinkles and adorable silly faces. Kevin is all grins and manly enthusiasm. He leaves her in her room, just for half an hour. She pirouettes, she dances, she’s so very very happy.

And the spell triggers.

It’s devastating. Her Deryni senses wake up and recognize the magic. She’s horrified. She screams for Kevin.

Kevin comes racing back. He sees the spellstone, and seizes it, intending to throw it out the window.  But that is a very, very bad idea. He’s human and the spell is badly set. Bronwyn tries to intervene. The spell explodes.

Kelson arrives at the gallop, takes in the situation, and takes charge. He orders the guards to keep everyone else out, and defuses the spell. Then he approaches the lovers, who are long past saving.

Duke Jared’s grief is all-encompassing. So is Rimmell’s, in back of the crowd.

Lady Margaret takes charge of her husband. Gwydion picks up Bronwyn’s broken lute and delivers her epitaph: “I fear the music is shattered forever, sire…. Nor can it ever be mended.”

Then he asks what happened. Kelson explains about the crystal, the name and properties of which he knows: jerráman. He enlists Gwydion and Derry to help with crowd control.

Derry finds Rimmell in a corner, weeping over what turns out to be Bronwyn’s locket. Little by little he, Kelson, and Lady Margaret extract the truth. Kelson is not gentle.

Jared completely loses it. Margaret and the guards stop him from killing Rimmell. Kelson intervenes for the second time that day, and lets Jared decide how to handle this. Rimmell begs for death. Jared, bringing himself under control, orders one of his men to execute Rimmell and display his head on Traitor’s Gate. Rimmell agrees totally with this sentence.

Margaret pleads with Kelson to reconsider, but Kelson refuses. Lord Fergus brings back Rimmell’s freshly decapitated head. Jared quotes Scripture about vengeance, and mourns the fallen lovers. “I never dreamed a tomb would be your bridal bed. I had thought to see you married two days hence.”

Margaret takes charge of him again. Kelson meanwhile sends Derry to find Dame Bethane, laying on him “occult protection” using the Camber medal Morgan has already used to communicate with Derry. In the process he wonders if Derry has Deryni blood, but Derry says no.

They wonder where Morgan is, and Kelson gives Derry instructions as to what to do about Bethane. Derry leaves, and Kelson stays, while the chaplain intones the litany for the dead—reminding Kelson painfully of his father, “also struck down unawares by magic.” Kelson reflects that he’ll have to hear these words again at the funeral that will replace the wedding, and wonders “if they would ever be easy to accept.”

Meanwhile, in Chapter 17, the Curia is still meeting in Dhassa, and it’s deadlocked. Bishop Tolliver and Bishop Wolfram object to the Interdict, and they’re not backing down. They’re fine with Morgan and Duncan paying a penalty, but not an entire duchy.

Cardiel and Arilan are playing fine-tuned politics here. Arilan has tallied the likely votes, and it’s not looking good for Team Corwyn.

Finally Cardiel makes a statement. He is against the Interdict. He argues with Loris, and issues an ultimatum: if Loris insists on Interdict, he’s leaving the Curia.

Loris calls him on it. Wolfram backs Cardiel up, along with Tolliver and Arilan. Arilan comes in for some youthism, which he fields effortlessly.

Poor Father Hugh has to produce the writ of Interdict for Loris and his faction to sign. Arilan points out that Kelson might not be too happy about this, especially considering how he handled the Regency Council (including Loris) prior to his coronation, and the sorceress Charissa at the coronation.

The signing continues. The final total is eleven of twenty-two—so not a majority. Arilan makes sure Loris and the rest know the tally, which includes six firm Nos, eleven Yeses, one abstention, and four absentees who will take weeks to track down.

Loris doesn’t care. He’ll do what he wants to do. Arilan warns him that he’s unleashing a vicious anti-Deryni civil war. Loris hisses and spits, but nobody’s buying his denials. After much heated backing and forthing, Cardiel throws him out.

When the meeting has broken up, Father Hugh is still there with the besties. No, he’s not spying. He wants to join them. He tells them about his interactions with Kelson last week. Arilan and Cardiel agree to trust him. And the pro-Morgan faction, with God, has now increased to four.

Once Hugh has been sent to take on his new secretarial duties, the besties pause to take stock. This is a right mess: civil war with Warin, war with Wencit, and now the Church is split. Arilan feels sorry for Kelson.

Then Cardiel asks Arilan how he feels about Deryni. Are they evil?

Arilan temporizes. He doesn’t think Morgan and company are—which is Cardiel notes is the first time he’s ever answered the question directly. Cardiel jokingly observes that “If I didn’t know better, I’d sometimes swear that you were Deryni.” Arilan twinkles in response. With a brief bit of further banter, they get to work saving the kingdom.

In the final chapter, Chapter 18, Morgan and Duncan arrive in Culdi. They stopped in Rhemuth, found Kelson gone, and filled Nigel in on events at Dhassa. They don’t know what’s happened here.

Their entry is full of whispers and delays. In the process, they notice a fresh head on a spike, and wonder who it is and what he did. (Which is where I note that the cover of the original edition is a huge honking hairy spoiler.)

Finally they’re let in, under careful guard, and they see signs of mourning. They still don’t have a clue. The tension stretches and stretches, and Morgan is suddenly terrified that the king has died.

Morgan bursts into Kelson’s chamber and finds him very much alive, with Derry and a sleepy squire. Kelson breaks the news gradually, first with the writ of excommunication, then with the identity of the head on the spike. And then he tells Morgan and Duncan who has died.

It takes them some time to process what they hear. Jared arrives, and asks Duncan to say the funeral mass.

This is a dilemma. Nobody here knows about the excommunication except the people in this room (except Jared). But Duncan does. He makes a judgment call with some basis in Church law: he agrees to say the mass.

He takes his father to see Kevin’s body, and Derry goes along with them. Kelson and Morgan are alone.

Morgan at first doesn’t even talk about his sister. It’s all about what he’s been through, how bad it’s been, how he can’t think what to advise Kelson to do. Then he gets around to her and Kevin, briefly, before going on about how it’s all on him (and Kelson and Duncan) to save the world from all the anti-Deryni hate. Because Deryni are different and that’s the whole problem right there.

When Morgan falls asleep, Kelson reads him, taking in everything he’s been through. Then Kelson focuses on getting things done: sending the news to Nigel, and preparing for war on multiple fronts.

The scene shifts to Duncan in the sacristy, reflecting on what he’s about to do: possibly the last time he ever celebrates a mass as a priest—and for such a grievous reason. He ponders God and faith and intention, and comes around, finally, to a sort of acceptance. He’ll make this “a perfect offering.” (A strong echo of the wording of the liturgy.)

Morgan at the funeral is numb. He’s taking in the surroundings of the church, the heraldry of the two funeral palls, the music and the ritual.

Morgan is actually not in love with himself at the moment. He ponders the Deryni problem, which caused this tragedy and many other tragedies through the past three centuries, up to and including the civil war, the war with Torenth, the last king’s death, and on and on. It’s all about the Deryni, every single thing. So of course it’s all about Morgan.

Then he actually allows as how he’s being selfish, and thinks about what Duncan must be going through, while the mass goes on and on.

Finally it ends, and Derry, attentively solicitous, is at his side. Morgan asks Derry to cover for him, and takes off for some alone time.

He ends up in his mother’s chapel, reflecting on childhood visits with Bronwyn to the tomb, and later retreats there from the pressures of the world. Then he hears Gwydion singing, and weeping while he sings. Morgan gives himself up to grief, but also to the conviction that he has to fight the darkness and win.

Kelson and company (including Jared and Derry) find him there. There’s news. The Curia is split. “Arilan believes he can raise an army of fifty thousand by the end of the month.”

Kelson needs Morgan’s advice. They have to fight both a civil war and a war of invasion.

Morgan is full of self-pity. He can’t taint Kelson with his excommunicate status.

Kelson isn’t having it. He needs Morgan. That’s all there is to it.

Morgan is still wibbling, but Kelson is completely sure of himself—and Morgan. Deryni have to stand together.

Morgan stops wibbling and starts strategizing. He and Kelson come up with a plan, and Kelson sets off to get things started.

Morgan wants to talk to Duncan before he joins the war effort. He finds his cousin in the vesting chapel, bidding a symbolic farewell to his priesthood. Morgan is sympathetic. Duncan doesn’t know about Kelson’s decision; Morgan enlightens him. Kelson cares about going against the will of the Curia, but he’s prepared to risk the consequences.

It’s long odds, but that’s standard for Deryni. Morgan closes the book with a sort of battle cry: “Our Deryni king has need of us.”


And I’m Thinking: And that’s a wrap. These chapters hit hard, not just with the depth of the tragedy, but with the inevitability of it. As soon as Rimmell decided he had to own Bronwyn, the rest unfolded as it had to. With special extra bonus messed-up Deryni magic.

That’s the ultimate point. That everything is about being Deryni, and Deryni are the focus of universal hate. As a result, not only are they hunted and persecuted, they’re an active danger to others if their powers aren’t properly trained or focused.

The lesson hits home, hard, in the Bronwyn story: Dame Bethane’s senile, misconceived spell on top of Rimmell’s creeper craziness and Bronwyn’s near-complete lack of training or agency. She’s a Good Girl, after all, and Good Girls don’t do bad things like use the magic they’re born with.

Bronwyn is so very problematical. She’s portrayed as a giggly teenager rather than a competent woman, and she’s clearly a powerful Deryni but she has done absolutely nothing with it, nor does there appear to have been any thought on anyone’s part that she might try. When she’s faced with a magical disaster, the first thing she does is scream and call for big strong man to help, but big strong man is human and her idiot-female reflex gets him killed. And no one even stops to question this.

I do not buy this. Not just because of years of reading and writing female characters that are actual, evolved human beings, but because it’s lazy. Charissa didn’t sit around embroidering samplers. Nor, I suspect, did the twins who gave birth to Morgan and Duncan.

Bronwyn exists to get fridged, is what it comes down to. She’s a plot token for Rimmell, and an Object Lesson for Morgan. She doesn’t have an independent existence.

In contrast with Bronwyn’s passivity, Morgan the Bad Boy and Duncan the priest with the secret have been experimenting all over the place with their powers. Mostly they’ve been making it up as they go along, presumably guided in his lifetime by Brion, whose induced powers come with a complete set of programming. Now Kelson is the adult in the room, aged all of fourteen, and he’s rocking it. But he doesn’t seem to think about teaching his friends what he knows. Maybe because it comes when he needs it and is otherwise basically not there?

Morgan continues to be all about Morgan. Even his grief is all MEMEMEME! first, then he takes a split second to be upset about his sister, then it’s back to It’s All On Me Me Me. I think it’s supposed to read as poor suffering heroic Morgan taking responsibility for saving the world, but comes across in my cranky old age as selfishness (which he calls himself on before he goes back to being All About Me again) and entitlement.

Duncan has much more depth to him, again. His dilemma is complex and layered and finds no simple solutions. He’s the most truly medieval of all the characters in the book, and the most closely aligned with the core principles of the Church, even while he breaks the laws against Deryni in the priesthood. He’s making a judgment call there, relying on his vocation to tell him that humans might judge Deryni evil, but God doesn’t agree.

A sentiment Arilan and Cardiel share. There’s more to that, as we’ll see in the next book. In terms of plot, this is very much a transitional story. Most of is setup for the events of High Deryni.

So that’s the end of a dark and heart-wrenching book. Despite its flaws and my snark thereon, I found it powerfully affecting at the time. I still do. The utter pathos of Gwydion’s tribute to Bronwyn; the power of ritual, in the funeral, in the excommunication; the crisis of faith that strikes Duncan to the heart: those have stayed with me. They still break my heart.

As I noted in comments last week, this for me was the most influential volume in the trilogy. Its themes and settings helped make a writer of me. It showed me a direction to take in terms of genre, character, and story, and it taught me a great deal about building tension and playing out the acts of a tragedy.

That’s a heart book. It’s been interesting to revisit it after all these years, and to find it still hits the notes I remember, even while I find it dated in its portrayal of women and its depiction of Morgan as cool sexy hero (now I just wish he’d get over himself—I’m with Team Duncan and, always, Team Derry).

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 most recent 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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