Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: High Deryni, Chapters 25-27

Welcome to the final weekly reread of High Deryni!

Last time, Arilan dismantled all of Wencit’s clever scheming, and a jinxed Derry opened the Transfer Portal, allowing shadowy kidnappers to nab poor Brendan. This week, the book, and the trilogy, come to a close. A magical battle begins and a wicked plot unravels, with a fair few twists along the way.

 

High Deryni: Chapters 25-27

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 25, in classic Kurtz fashion, picks up right where the last chapter left off, as Kelson and company come swarming in, too late to rescue little Brendan. Richenda is all in tears, but she’s still Deryni enough to warn the king and the rest out of the circle. It’s Arilan who extricates her, and Duncan who takes her in hand. Arilan won’t let Morgan step in to help. Arilan takes responsibility for leaving the Portal open, and half kills himself shutting it.

There is something Morgan can do, which is find out what happened and deal with Derry. Derry has been acting possessed, and now doesn’t remember anything. He’s horrified and embarrassed when he finds out what he’s done. Then when Morgan touches him, he goes berserk. Wencit has conditioned him to kill Morgan.

Morgan needs Kelson’s help for the complicated counterspell. While this happens, Duncan gives Richenda a little priestly therapy. Richenda confesses to “a terrible thing”: she tried to kill her husband. Duncan realizes she’s Deryni. So, she observes, does Bran, now he’s seen her in action. She’s all teary and blubbery and confused and confesses to being in love with Alaric and so on and so very girly-teary forth.

Duncan is all confused himself. Nobody’s available to help. He understands the lovers’ dilemma, and he realizes he’s being called on to act in a priestly capacity—but also as a Deryni.

This is a pivotal moment. Duncan has to be both Deryni and priest, and has to figure out how to reconcile the two. Arilan is a useful role model, he reflects, somewhat lengthily.

Just as he finishes his mental perambulations, Richenda puts him squarely on the spot. She asks him to hear her confession. Duncan reminds her that he’s suspended. But, she says, all wide blue eyes and batting eyelashes, Uncle Cardiel says that’s just you, he and Arilan don’t see any problem since you did your penance in Dhassa.

Nor does she have any problem at all with Duncan’s being Deryni. In fact it’s a major plus. She keeps right on putting him on the spot until he gives in and accepts his personal reality.

Meanwhile Morgan has finally broken the spell on Derry. Kelson is all, wow, that was some heavy stuff, and poor Derry has to live with it. No worries, says Morgan, he’s messed with Derry’s head and Derry will barely remember anything he went through. He’ll sleep for days, and totally miss the big magical battle.

The party breaks up to get some sleep, with Richenda all meek and submissive to the king. (But we know what she’s got going on under the hood.)

In Chapter 26, the dawn of the duel has arrived. Kelson is cranky about the rules—no weapons, no steel or iron. He didn’t have to do that with Charissa. Arilan is calm. These are Council rules for group battles, to keep the treachery factor down. Morgan allows as how that’s a definite issue with Wencit.

Kelson makes a brief speech to his troops, which includes, after a reminder from Morgan, the naming of Nigel as his successor if he doesn’t come back alive. This done, he and his fellow combatants take their time, with much setup and description, getting to the place where the duel will happen.

The Council hasn’t shown up yet. Arilan assures a cranky and frightened Kelson that it’s on the way. (Obviously with a detour to deal with Wencit’s impostors.)

Wencit isn’t looking terribly confident, either, and his co-combatants are looking anxious. It’s clear they’re waiting for their own “Council” arbitrators to arrive.

Suddenly and dramatically, four riders gallop up. They’re the real Council, of course, and Wencit is Not Amused.

The ritual begins. Wencit is furious. Kelson is visibly nervous. Whoever wins gets the other kingdom, and the loser’s heirs will swear fealty to the winner.

Kelson has one additional stipulation. If he wins, Richenda gets her son back. Bran furiously refuses, until Lady Vivienne reminds him that he’ll be dead.

Wencit counters with his own stipulation. If he wins, Bran gets Richenda. He also promises to return all his prisoners if he loses, along with Brendan.

That’s generous, even considering he’ll be too dead to care. Kelson accepts the terms.

Now that’s taken care of, the Council members set up the circle, in detail, with the same variety of quasi-religious, distinctly Christian ritual that we’ve seen in other great workings of Deryni magic. It’s very visual and very dramatic.

And then we get the same kind of contest we saw at the end of Deryni Rising: bad poetry and a technicolor light show. But this time, there’s a twist: just as the circle is closed until one party is dead, and before Wencit can get going full bore with the taunts, Rhydon calls for a toast. All the combatants from Torenth will drink first, to allay fears of treachery—and so they do.

But! Before Kelson and company can share the toast, Rhydon stops them cold. He drops a bomb on Wencit. He’s lived a lie for years. “I am not Rhydon.”

Chapter break. And now, the end is nigh: Chapter 27, in which all is revealed, and the trilogy concludes. Wencit is spitting mad. “Rhydon” is all casual and smiling. The real one died of a heart attack six years ago. And nobody even began to guess.

Wencit is in major denial and blaming everybody, starting with Kelson and the Council. The Council in fact is just as flummoxed as the rest of them. “Rhydon” says that’s not all he’s done, and points to Bran and Lionel, who are starting to keel over. The wine was doctored, and it’s hitting the humans first. Deryni take longer. “Rhydon” took an antidote, but it’s fatal, too; it just defers the initial symptoms.

Then he takes great pleasure in telling Wencit his symptoms have started. As Wencit collapses in slo-mo, “Rhydon” gives Kelson a little lecture about the drug, which suppresses Deryni powers as well as kills the victim. It’s slow and painful, he says, without the antidote. Kelson will have to kill the other three, since four have to die for the circle to break.

Kelson is appalled. “Rhydon” doesn’t care. He’s judged them and they totally deserve this. He’s handed Kelson a free victory, and made him “the lawful King of the Deryni.”

Arilan steps up. He recognizes “Rhydon” by his manner and tells him to reveal himself, since it doesn’t matter any more. “Rhydon” obliges. It’s Stefan Coram, and he says, “Believe me, this is the only way.”

Arilan is shocked. Then Coram shows himself again as “Camber” who appeared to Morgan and Duncan.

The death is scene is drawn out, with much drama and consternation on the part of the spectators. Morgan offers to try healing, but Arilan says it won’t work. Then at long last Coram dies, with a vision of “a blond man in a cowl,” and Arilan’s cross in his hand.

Now Kelson has to oversee the cleanup. It takes him quite a while to talk his way around to disposing of the other three enemy combatants with his powers, including Morgan’s offer to do it instead. Kelson has to be the one. He’s Brion’s son, it’s his revenge. And he’s king.

Morgan shows him how, telepathically. Kelson is surprised, and a little bit in awe. He still drags it out for several pages with Wencit, who is snide and nasty to the bitter end. There’s another, if brief ritual involved. Then, much more quickly, he disposes of Lionel and Bran.

When he’s done, he won’t let Arilan’s consecrated hands touch him. He’s appalled by what he’s had to do, horrified that he has the power to do it. He and Morgan discuss this for some little time. It’s a bitter victory, and Kelson is disappointed in himself.

He’s quite bitter and quite sharp about it. “The king plays out his role,” he says. He emerges from the circle to wild cheering, is put on a white horse, and it’s all brave and handsome and glorious. “But the crown lay heavily that day upon the Heir of Haldane.”

And that’s the end.

And I’m Thinking: I’d forgotten how dark the ending was. It’s grimdark before the word was invented, a genuinely morally ambiguous conclusion to a series that I remembered as being basically upbeat. People aren’t all awful, the world isn’t crapsack, but it’s not simple light and dark, good and evil, either. Instead of a straightforward magical blowout with the good guys coming out as winners, the victory is handed to them by a deep-cover agent who can’t allow the bad guys to have any chance of coming out on top.

I’m trying to decide if this is a downer. It’s a twist, for sure, but we’ve had indications throughout the series that all may not be as it seems. We already know Morgan does whatever he damned well wants, and messes with humans as he royally pleases, so as “honorable” he may be as far as who owns which woman is concerned, for the most part he treats humans like domestic animals. Some he loves and treats well (though as with Derry, he uses them without a qualm), others he just uses.

The one with the hardest job I think is Kelson. He’s only fourteen years old, he’s very scrupulous and very thoughtful, and there are times when he has to do things, as king, that make him physically and emotionally sick. Here at the end, when he’s handed a “victory” by treachery, he takes it because he has to, but he does not have to like it.

And that’s way more complicated than we might expect, considering all the sneering and mustache-twirling we get from the villains. Even Morgan’s love dilemma is kind of simplistic, what with all the angsting about the man of honor falling for another man’s female property.

I’ll be pondering this as I write the wrap post next week—thinking about the whole trilogy and the reactions I had as I reread. I’d love to hear from readers in comments, to see what you think about all this. Good ending? Bad ending? Long, disappointing fizzle?

And then—after next week, there’s more! I’ve received the go-ahead to do a reread of the Camber trilogy. So after we wrap this first set of books, we’ll be heading back in story-time to Camber of Culdi.

Meanwhile, I hope everyone has enjoyed the reread, and found it as satisfying as they did on the first go. I think I did, albeit in different ways. But we’ll see how my thoughts incline by next week.

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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