Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: High Deryni, Chapters 16-18

Welcome to the weekly reread of High Deryni!

Last time, Morgan engaged Warin in a semi-scholastic debate on the divine origins of the healing gift, revealing that he, a Deryni, can also heal. GASP! This week sees a miraculous conversion, a dramatic reversal, and a very long council of war. And Morgan finally learns the identity of the beautiful lady with the red-gold hair.

 

High Deryni: Chapters 16-18

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 16 follows directly from Chapter 15, with Warin stabbing Duncan in the shoulder as part of a magical and moral experiment. The wound is much worse than expected, and Morgan isn’t completely sure he can heal it. He insists that Duncan try to stay conscious and help. Duncan is suitably plucky and courageous. At length. With much pain and anguish.

It ends happily, however. “The wound was gone!”

Everyone is suitably awed. Morgan continues schooling Warin in the logic of the situation. If healing is holy, and if Deryni can heal…

Warin is absolutely flummoxed. Morgan is understanding (and smug). Warin is dazed. Morgan suggests Warin might be Deryni, but Warin insists he isn’t. Kelson points out that Deryni might not know what they are.

Morgan says he can settle that question by Mind-Seeing Warin. Warin is all stammery and shaky and leaning on Cardiel to give him priestly permission. Then he asks his minions what they think. Finally he dithers and quivers and agrees, and Morgan is quite clinical and professional.

The procedure takes quite some time. We get the blow-by-blow. Morgan is impressed by the organization of Warin’s mind. He also doesn’t detect any Deryni-ness, and asks Duncan to confirm.

On the way out of Warin’s mind, Morgan does a little tweaking and tidying (because Morgan cannot go near a human mind without messing with it). Also, a little…adjustment in attitudes, presented as giving him the truth about Deryni so he’ll change his mind about them.

This rocks Warin’s world. He’s all wow and I’m disappointed and golly gosh Deryni are so amazing, I had no idea.

The first thing he does is apologize profusely to Kelson and beg for redemption. Kelson gives it to him if he’ll swear fealty. Warin is all for it. No more Deryni-hate. Nope. Not even a little bit.

Now they have to frame the narrative for Warin’s followers. Warin knows exactly how. He’ll pretend he had a holy dream, and leave it to the rumor mill to do the rest.

Morgan is impressed. Warin has “an eye for intrigue.”

They split up and agree to meet again in two hours. Morgan is headed for the dungeons, where some of his officers are imprisoned. Warin has a propaganda campaign to launch.

In Chapter 17, it’s dawn and Coroth has seen a serious change in Warin’s attitude—and any minion who disagrees with it is promptly locked up. Archbishops Loris and Corrigan meet with several of the other bishops to chew over the new development. They’re not even slightly taken in by the “vision” story, and they’re seriously worried that Warin will go over to the king’s faction. There’s harrumphing and denial and “it couldn’t happen here.”

Suddenly there’s a knock at the door. It’s Warin, with an armed squadron. After a bit of verbal sparring, Warin issues his demand: de-excommunicate the daring duo and the king, and lift the Interdict. Loris refuses to cooperate.

Warin locks the bishops in and plays the trump card: Kelson and company, via yet another secret passage. (Why stage a good bit of drama once when you can do it twice for extra bonus shock and awe?)

Warin and his men immediately kneel to the king. The bishops are shocked. Kelson is chilly and royal. Loris is haughtily defiant. “You are dead to us, Sire.” (This was written decades before Tony Soprano, but hearing this line in his voice has its charms.)

Kelson begs to differ. Loris starts spitting and yelling, while Kelson, assisted by Morgan, refuses to play.

Loris accuses Morgan of mind control. Morgan threatens him with the king’s power. Loris is intransigent. Kelson orders him arrested and appoints Cardiel Primate of Gwynedd in his place. Loris keeps on ranting, but he’s lost and everyone knows it. Kelson offers the other bishops a choice: unite with him against Wencit or retire to their sees and stay out of it.

He’s quite, quite royal, with the royal we to prove it. Loris keeps on ranting and raving. Some of the bishops take the option to retire. The rest (urged on by Kelson, who’s running out of both time and patience) kneel to the king’s majesty.

And that’s that for the bishops’ rebellion.

Next scene, we get lots and lots and lots of details about the army’s departure and the disposition of its units and the extravagance of the king’s outfit. Also lots and lots of High Style. This, we’re told with a grand flourish, is Kelson’s first big victory, and he won it “without a sword being raised.”

In Chapter 18, the army has reached Dhassa, and Morgan has not been able to get in touch with Derry. He’s getting terribly worried. (So are we!) But that doesn’t stop the narrative from going on and on at great and completely abstract length about what’s going on, which is an endlessly described meeting, with no actual details of what anyone is saying or planning. It’s like the textbook example of How Not To Write A War Council.

Viewpoint here is Kelson, also endlessly and abstractly described, except for raven hair and the “simplest of crimson lion tunics.” Just a little embroidery here and there, one supposes, and a light scattering of jewels. Kelson is working on being Mature and Circumspect.

Finally Kelson notices that Duncan is acting quite Morgan-like: sitting off by himself, brooding handsomely. Duncan is worried about Derry, too, mostly because Morgan is worried about him and Duncan is picking up Morgan’s emotions. On top of this, Duncan has his own troubles having to do with being a Deryni priest (albeit suspended). But that’s just a short line on top of all the details about Morgan. Because Morgan is what it’s all about.

Suddenly he notices the arrival of a troop of riders, including an apparently wounded “page or squire” on a foundering horse. The boy is wearing McLain livery.

Duncan watches “the flash of a blade” dispatch the horse. In short order, the boy arrives in the meeting room, in terrible condition, calling for the king. As he reaches Kelson, he passes out, at length and without delivering his message.

There is much fuss and flurry, amid which, Morgan notices that the boy is carrying a blood-soaked battle pennant and a badge of Torenth. Morgan pours wine into the boy and wakes him up, and pokes and prods him (in an avuncular manner) until he talks. All he can get out, with many ellipses, is that Duke Jared’s army is “all…gone.”

Morgan says it’s not safe for the boy to force him back to consciousness. Kelson says they can’t wait for him to come through on his own. They have to know what happened. Morgan allows as how there’s “another way.”

We all know what that is.

Kelson is royally firm. Morgan is all Significantly Gazey. Kelson holds the line. Morgan allows as how there’s no choice, and “your barons will have to see me in action sooner or later.”

Kelson tells him to do it, then states the case to the rest of the meeting. It’s for the boy’s sake, he says. He’ll die if they use any conventional method of getting the information out of him.

The meeting reacts as expected. Lots of discomfort. Some attempts to head for the door. Kelson stops them all with a look. (Oh, those  Haldane eyes.)

The setup takes a while. There’s all the shuffling around to get the boy into Morgan’s lap, then Morgan has to spend a while scanning the room and thinking about what’s happening, then he gives a brief lecture about what he’s going to do and how dangerous it is for him if anyone tries to interfere.

Eventually he gets around to actually doing it. He channels the boy, seance-style, with a nicely dramatic opening: “Blood.” In a nice, weird whisper.

He goes on. Duncan realizes what he’s doing, though we aren’t told, exactly. (It’s clear enough from context.) We just know Duncan is freaking out.

Morgan keeps on with the channeling. He’s doing voices and everything. Lots of drama and exclamation points, with bonus sobs and cries, adding up to Duke Jared meeting with Bran Coris, the armies combining, the suddenly the Marley troops rip the covers off their shields to reveal Wencit’s blazon, and slaughter ensues.

It’s all very weird and eldritch. The boy is absolutely loyal. He escaped the massacre and kills three horses getting to his king. He knows the king will avenge the Duke (though he’s not positive Jared is dead). “God save…the…king,” he declares, and that’s it for the channeling session.

Morgan comes to with further drama and some tears. Duncan processes the fact that he’s the duke’s sole surviving son, and of course there’s guilt that he wasn’t there with his father.

Morgan hands the unconscious boy off to a pair of squires and surveys the room with eyes that are “inky pools of power and mystery.” He’s surprised to see everybody suddenly on his side: “fearful but trusting now.”

Kelson breaks the spell, and the mood, with a flash of royal temper and some hard practicality. There’s treason to confront, and a great dilemma especially for the clergy, because it’s not just about humans versus Deryni any more. It’s about who’s on the side of right, as Bishop Tolliver says, and Cardiel adds, “And he who is on the side of Darkness can only be our enemy, no matter what his blood or oath or spell.”

That does it for Cardiel. He renews his promise of support to Kelson, including the rest of the bishops in the process. The bishops who can’t fight can pray. “Pray for us all.”

The war council gets back to work. Kelson isn’t participating. Morgan notices, and hopes he isn’t blaming himself about Bran, a la Duncan about his father. Kelson isn’t, and adds that Bran’s wife is in Dhassa. “There are a lot of women and children staying here,” Kelson says.

They speculate as to whether Bran meant to turn traitor. Morgan thinks not, or the wife and child wouldn’t be in Dhassa. Kelson points out that “the potential was there,” and rebukes himself for sending Bran to the front.

Morgan says he would have done the same thing. Kelson insists he should have known. Morgan tries to distract him by asking if the heir will cause any trouble. Hardly, Kelson says: Brendan is “only three or four years old.” But he’s not looking forward to telling the countess what happened.

Morgan offers to help, but Kelson demurs. What with his drama-queen mother, he has plenty of experience “dealing with hysterical women.”

Morgan smiles in manly solidarity, with a thought for “tall Queen Jehana,” the notoriously hysterical. He and Nigel can wrap up the meeting, he says, while Kelson deals with the female element.

Kelson leaves. Duncan heads out by the same door. He needs to be alone. Morgan understands.

Morgan gets back to the meeting, which finally yields some details. Now they know how the situation has changed, their plans have to change accordingly. Nigel does the generaling and strategizing. Morgan hangs around and gets bored, then takes charge of a new shipment of dispatches.

One of those catches his attention. It’s from a general who was with Duke Jared, and it’s (relatively) good news. Jared was captured, not killed, along with several other dignitaries, and a handful of his troops escaped. The general has taken those and will meet the king at Drellingham.

The room erupts. Morgan, never one to stick around for the boring parts, seizes the excuse to escape. “Duncan and Kelson will want to know about this.”

Duncan has disappeared. Kelson, we discover, is “occupied with events far more trying, if less urgent,” than what Morgan has been dealing with. It’s a lengthy process, with much waiting and twitching in the alien atmosphere of the women’s planet, before the countess appears.

She is, of course, the goddess whom Morgan has worshipped from afar. She’s beautiful and remote and supernaturally composed. Her name is Richenda, and she is “a noble’s daughter, bred to dignity and stoic acceptance of her lot in the general order of things.”

GAG. ME.

Kelson is all awkward and trying to be helpful and promising he won’t blame her for her husband’s treachery.

Suddenly there is a knock at the door. It’s Morgan. He sweeps in, ignoring the female, who appears to be flummoxed at the sight of him.

Morgan rapidly fills Kelson in on the latest news. Kelson is thrilled. He remembers to be polite to the lady, which is more than Morgan could do. “My lady, you will pardon me, this is important news.”

Suddenly Morgan notices the woman. It’s Her! The one in the carriage at Torenth! And the one in the bishop’s chapel last week! OMG! Who is she? Who can she be?

He’s all aflutter, and belatedly remembers to be gallant. She’s all hesitant and her eyes are like lakes and yes, she remembers “Alain the hunter” from Torenth.

And he remembers her. In his dreams. And he’s presuming. And she’s so shy and coy. Who is she?

Kelson, ever the practical one, performs introductions.

“Morgan’s stomach did a slow, queasy roll.” Because high style fails before the shock of her identity. She’s the traitor’s wife! OMG! How could he have missed it? How could he have failed to see?

He pulls himself together hastily and tells Kelson about the carriage accident at Torenth. Kelson, in one of his rare reversions to actual fourteen-year-old-boy-ness, isn’t picking up much besides a little weirdness in Morgan’s affect, having apparently failed to notice how weird and coy the lady is also acting (though that’s probably standard lady behavior). He’s all business now. Important stuff to do, sorry, we have to go, “Please don’t hesitate to call if I may be of any assistance.”

Richenda is all lowered eyes and curtseys and soft politeness—until she pulls Kelson up short with a (soft) request. She wants to go with Kelson to Cardosa. She might be able to talk to Bran.

Oh, no, no, Kelson says, put on the spot and frantic about it. “An army is no place for a woman of gentle birth…. We are going to war, my lady!”

Richenda continues to be all lowered eyes and soft politeness and absolute refusal to be denied. She knows what she’s getting into, she says. “A few hardships,” she says. She needs to atone for her husband’s treason. “Please do not deny me, Sire.”

Kelson is praying for Morgan to get him out of this, but Morgan is all lowered eyes and nope, not listening, la la la. But Kelson thinks he actually wants Kelson to give in and let the lady come along.

Kelson grasps at straws. But—but—chaperone! That’s it! There’s no one to be her chaperone!

Oh, but there is, says the soft relentless voice. Bishop Cardiel is her mother’s uncle.

Kelson is just a bit nasty about the advisability of Cardiel’s agreeing to this, but Richenda isn’t even slightly fazed. And Morgan is no help at all.

Kelson finally gives in, with one last jab: “We leave at first light…. Can you be ready?”

She doesn’t even blink. Kelson stomps out. Morgan is a little slower to leave. Richenda isn’t budging even yet. And he doesn’t understand her at all.

 

And I’m Thinking: These are, in my estimation, the three most exasperating chapters in the trilogy. Up to this point, the plotholes have been noticeable here and there, and a few (like the free-range Deryni sorceress in the heart of the king’s palace in Deryni Rising) have been a bit canyon-like. And of course there’s been the ongoing and serious problem with the female characters.

Both of these issues blow up all over the place here.

First, plothole. I don’t recall my reaction to Warin’s conversion when I first read the book. I was zooming through, I’m sure, and not stopping for much on my way to the grand finale.

On the reread, I came screeching to a halt. Whiskey, Tango, Foxtrot, Over?

Loris is right, of course. Morgan has practiced mind control. He’s messed with Warin’s head, and made him do a full one-eighty on his attitude toward the Deryni.

Nevertheless. What Morgan is supposed to have done is simply show him the truth. Just a little tweak. Nothing major at all. The problem with that is, it doesn’t work that way.

It’s been over forty years since this book was written, and we’ve seen some truly…fascinating political and cultural developments, and there have been studies in the nature and evolution of bigotry. And one of the defining characteristics of bigots is that nothing shakes them. The more facts one introduces, the more truth one shows, the more determined the bigot is to cling to his belief. What Morgan did should have made Warin worse instead of altering his entire world view.

I’ve observed this up close and personal. It’s not an abstract concept. Therefore, when Warin sees Morgan heal Duncan, then Morgan puts that little bit of code in there and there’s a couple of paragraphs of denial and then it’s all, I see the light! It’s true! All my bigotry is a lie! Deryni aren’t demons at all! Deryni are wonderful! I am converted! I want to be on your side now!, I said, No. Just. No. That would not happen. It just wouldn’t. Loris’ ranting, which is played to make him seem a fool, is far more psychologically credible.

Plot-wise, of course, we need this dramatic reversal in order to wrap up the mess in Gwynedd and shift the emphasis toward the war with Wencit. Character-wise, it’s totally a Morgan thing to do whatever the hell he wants with a human mind. But one dramatic healing scene and suddenly Warin forgets he ever hated Deryni, and not only that, convinces his most loyal minions (who have not been mind-tweaked as far as we know) to go over to Team Morgan, too? Even though a few do defect? Nope. Nope nope. Uh-huh.

I had to stop reading at that point and regain my composure. And try to get myself back into “Just read it, keep going” mode. My disbelief had totally fallen off its suspension bridge, but I hauled it back up before it splatted on the bottom of the chasm, and pushed on through.

Then, having survived the Incredible Conversion and the Endless Droning Meeting, I ran head-on into the second problem: misogyny on parade. For younger readers who want to get a sense of how women were perceived in the general culture in the mid-twentieth century, this is absolutely classic. I mean it’s textbook.

Men do all the important things. The world is run by men and the rules are set by them and the species (human or Deryni) is defined by them. Women are invisible (witness all the women and children at Dhassa, of whom we see nothing). When perforce they become visible, they’re a nuisance or a chore, and they are defined by flightiness and hysteria.

Unless of course they are Goddess On Pedestal, in which case they’re Richenda. Impossibly beautiful, unreachably remote, and completely incomprehensible. They get their way by speaking softly and manipulating men’s emotions.

Men make no effort to understand them. They’re an alien species. And that’s just how things are.

Richenda is very much a part of this culture. “Dignity and stoic acceptance.” GAH. Of course she rebels, but it’s a profoundly conventional rebellion: womanly wiles exerted on the defenseless males.

I wish I could read it as a form of satire, but the whole trilogy is so deeply patriarchal and so unquestioningly subscribed to the superior-male paradigm that I just don’t see it. And alas, Richenda fans, I can’t stand her. She’s the same species as Rowena in Ivanhoe, admittedly with more spine, but I’ve always been on Team Rebecca and there’s no Rebecca here.

It’s sad when a woman writing fantasy in the United States in the 1970s has less actual feminist cred than Sir Walter Scott. But it’s also indicative of attitudes at the time. Shows you, I think, where Joanna Russ and Germaine Greer and Betty Friedan and the rest of the feminist icons got their fire—and what they were up against.

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, and she’s currently completing a sequel. 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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