Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: High Deryni, Chapters 1-3

Welcome to the first weekly reread of High Deryni! We’re two books down in the first published trilogy, and one to go.

This week the civil war in Gwynedd delivers the royalists a costly defeat, Morgan and Duncan ride again, and the evil Deryni King of Torenth invites the Earl of Marley to a meeting.


High Deryni: Chapters 1-3

Here’s What Happens: The book opens on a battlefield. As Chapter 1 begins, a boy named Royston clutches a dagger among the dead. There’s a lengthy and heavily expository flashback to the battle and its causes: Prince Nigel, riding to Coroth to engage the troops of Archbishops Loris and Corrigan, was led into ambush here at Jennan Vale. The royalists have retreated after heavy casualties.

Royston is plundering the dead, in detail, until he finds his brother’s best friend, Mal, alive but badly wounded. They converse in broad dialect about Mal’s shiny new sword and his not so shiny new wound. Mal is denial. Royston is horrified, and helpless.

Suddenly two riders in grey falcon cloaks appear, one dark and one fair. They’re kind, and send Royston to fetch a donkey to carry Mal off the field. Once he’s gone, they confirm Mal’s suspicion that they’re Warin’s men, and start tending the wound. They speak grammatical English, as Mal notices, and tell him they’re riding to Coroth on a special mission.

They continue treating the wound, lighting a torch without apparent use of flint and steel and with some teasing about how they can’t really be Deryni, can they? While they work, Mal tells them about the battle, and blames it all on Duke Alaric.

The blond rider is not amused. He’s very charismatic and a little dangerous. Mal tells him people didn’t hate the duke before he got all mixed up in Deryni magic, burned down St. Torin’s and brought down Interdict on Corwyn. Warin plans to capture the duke and deliver him to the archbishops.

The good samaritans lull Mal into unconsciousness and tell him to forget everything that just happened. When he wakes, he has a sliver of metal in his hand, they’re packing up to go and he feels much better. It’s a miracle, he says, but the two men demur.

Royston appears with his mother and the donkey. With further heavy dialect and some fuss and to-do, Mal thanks his rescuers and rides off.

As soon as he’s gone, Morgan and Duncan—because of course it’s our two favorite Deryni sorcerers—discuss whether they overstepped by healing the man. He’s one of Morgan’s people, and Morgan wonders if it all really is his fault. Duncan doesn’t think so. He’s just an excuse. The Church has been gunning for Deryni for generations.

The discussion continues, taking in Kelson’s probable reaction to their information-gathering, and the unexpected size of the rebellion. And the chapter ends with the omniscient narrator opining that nobody would believe the two riders are the notorious Deryni heretics. It’s just not done for lords to ride undercover as spies, or to heal enemy soldiers. Now they’re off to meet Kelson at Dol Shaia, with a clear reminder that the king is also Deryni.

In Chapter 2, we meet Kelson himself. His hair is black. His eyes are grey. (No need to take notes. This is going to be repeated frequently. Did we mention his hair is black? Except when it’s raven. Also, grey eyes.)

He’s mending a shield, and he’s worried. Suddenly Derry appears. He does not approve of his king doing servant’s work.

His king has nothing else to do while Alaric makes him wait. And wait. And wait some more.

He manages to extract from Derry an analysis of the battle of Jennan Vale. It was a serious defeat, both in lives and in morale. Derry however thinks Kelson is overestimating Warin’s influence. Loyalty to the crown is stronger than a short-term rebellion, and now Warin has based himself in Coroth with the archbishops, which undercuts his status as a rebel.

He and Kelson discuss the matter in further detail, and segue into a discussion of Prince Nigel, who is wounded in body and spirit. Then Derry reports on other fronts in the war. They’re fighting Wencit of Torenth as well as their own Church and people, and there’s no news from Duke Jared and Bran Coris, which troubles Kelson.

Suddenly word comes that Alaric and Duncan are back. Kelson is thrilled. Morgan and Duncan are not so thrilled with the location of the royal camp. Morgan chose it, Kelson points out. They agree to continue over lunch.

Amid considerable small talk and discussion of the undercover spying mission, Nigel appears, looking the worse for wear. Morgan tries to perk him up with some levity about the crazy rumors he’s heard, including one about his having cloven hooves. Derry is happy to confirm that this is a false.

The discussion continues (and continues). Kelson needs to settle the kingdom in order to focus on the external war. Duncan recommends that Kelson try to reconcile with the rebel bishops in Dhassa. Kelson agrees.

They discuss this (and discuss it). Duncan knows Bishop Arilan and thinks he’ll be open to the notion, especially if Morgan and Duncan present themselves for judgment. And the discussion continues.

Suddenly the itinerant (and rebel) Bishop Istelyn appears. He’s attached himself to Kelson’s army, and he has news that Kelson is not pleased to get. Kelson dismisses everyone but Morgan and Duncan, and allows himself a brief eruption of temper. He quickly quells it, because he is a king (and he’s all of fourteen, let’s remember), and tells his friends that he is now excommunicated and Gwynedd is under Interdict.

Morgan is completely unperturbed. So is Duncan, who explains that the order is “worthless.” The faction in Coroth consists of eleven prelates, and they need twelve to render any action valid.

Kelson is greatly relieved and a little sheepish. Now it’s urgent that Morgan and Duncan get to Dhassa. Kelson frets. Morgan and Duncan reassure him—though not too much. Wencit’s war is coming, and the civil war has to be settled before the larger one takes all of Gwynedd down.

Kelson has to stay put and keep waiting. Morgan and Duncan promise to keep him posted. Morgan takes some considerable time to reassure him about the rebel bishops, and encourages him to talk it out and face his fears. It’s all very fatherly and brotherly and reassuring.

Chapter 3 moves to one of the fronts of the war against Torenth. Bran Coris, Earl of Marley, is camped with his loyal men on the plain below Cardosa, taking care of various bits of business. Bran is as bored as Morgan was, nearly all of a book ago.

One of these bits of business is a letter to his wife, Countess Richenda. He wants her and his heir to move to neutral territory for safety, “perhaps Dhassa.”

Suddenly his boredom breaks. A company arrives from Torenth under a “parley banner.” It’s led by Wencit’s brother-in-law Lionel, Duke of Arjenol (who looks like Basil Rathbone, and who has long hair, which is very sinister), and it bears an invitation from Wencit to meet with Bran Coris in Cardosa. Wencit wants to discuss “a cessation of hostilities and mutual withdrawal from the area in dispute.”

Lionel offers himself and his escort as a hostage. Bran and his captains discuss the offer and its possible ramifications. It could be a trap, but the hostages are extremely high in rank and trust, and Bran Coris’ army isn’t large enough to defend the pass for long. There’s also the fact that the hostages are probably Deryni and could do terrible things when Bran Coris is gone.

Bran Coris decides, based on gut feeling, to take the meeting—but also to drug the hostages while he’s gone. Lionel is taken aback but consents, after some maneuvering and some testing of the drug. This takes quite a bit of time, but ends with the hostages in a drugged sleep and Lionel declaring that if the drug’s safety is is a lie, he’ll haunt Bran Coris. Bran Coris is not perturbed. He surveys the sleeping company and sets off to meet the King of Torenth.


And I’m Thinking: This volume is much longer than the previous two. The opening chapters are dense with background, exposition, and intrigue, and also, in the first chapter, with a painful attempt at peasant dialect. The viewpoint is clearly that of the aristocrats, and the common people are an alien and ungrammatical species. There are zero female speaking roles, and only one, skinny, cowed woman to be seen, though we hear about Bran Coris’ wife, who has to be disposed of along with that other valuable property, his heir.

She is not apparently as tame a creature as she might be, from the way he talks about her having to be persuaded. But he doesn’t expect her to object too strongly.

Meanwhile Morgan and Duncan are derring-do-ing again, this time playing spies in enemy territory, wearing enemy costumes. There’s a very brief nod to the fact that this is totally not the sort of thing a duke and an aristocratic priest would ever do, but of course these two do, because they do. It’s not as if any of the ungrammatical classes were capable of serving as spies, and apparently Derry, Morgan’s previous go-to guy for such missions, is taking a break from the spy business.

Because the King’s Champion is just the person to risk on a dangerous mission in the middle of a civil war, with his fancy accent and his even fancier charisma. Not to mention his constitutional inability to resist using his magic early, often, and in dramatic (if often altruistic) ways.

When I first read the book, of course, I thought it was great fun, and Morgan buckles swashes so nicely. This time around, I ran into more than a simple editorial problem. I discovered that a very long book squeezed into as few pages as possible was a challenge to my no longer teenaged eyes.

It was a bit of a saga. I began with the edition published when the first Camber book came out, and found it to be a misprint: not just tiny type but insufficient ink, so that most pages were so faded as to be illegible. I gave up in frustration and bought the ebook, only to find that it was a revised edition, with a completely gratuitous expository prologue (to add to all the exposition in the original). Finally I tracked down the first edition (my own is safely packed away; let’s hear it for Abebooks for inexpensive reading copies), and found additional treasure: the Lin Carter introduction.

Carter wrote intros for all three volumes of the first edition. These intros disappeared from subsequent editions. In this case, it’s mostly a summary of the previous volumes, filtered through a lens of reflex anti-Catholicism, but the conclusion is fascinating.

Carter talks about the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, and how it had, as of 1973, published only four debut authors (actually three plus one severely overlooked classic)—and all four just happened to be women: Joy Chant, Sanders Anne Laubenthal, Evangeline Walton, and Kurtz herself. Carter is much bemused by this. It almost upsets him. He can’t deny their talent, he’s interested to note that they all base their work on some aspect of Welsh lore or setting or history, and—they’re women. No male author in five years of the imprint has risen to match them. And here they are. Women.

He even goes so far as to protest that he’s not indulging in “male chauvinism.” He’s just baffled, that’s all. He name-checks Le Guin and Andre Norton and a few others, too, as if he can’t quite believe that it’s happening. Women. Excelling in fantasy.

Considering the trajectory of the genre in the four decades since, I find this both interesting and a little bit painful. By the Eighties, fantasy was fluffy and girly and boys wrote muscular science fiction, unless they were writing bestsellers, then they were either cloning Tolkien or (more rarely) inventing their own worlds (Thomas Covenant, anyone?). And yet by 2014, pundits were gravely excited to find women entering the staunchly male domain of fantasy, where no woman had gone before.

Erasure. Ya gotta love it.

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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