Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber of Culdi, Chapters 4-6

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber of Culdi! This week, our heroes (and our smart little heroine) discuss the morality of insurrection, we finally meet the wicked King Imre, and Camber’s elder son runs head-on into a situation he can’t handle, either politically or emotionally.

 

Camber of CuldiChapters 4-6

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 4 carries on with Rhys and Joram in the monastery. Rhys is emphatically not a morning person. Eventually, after attending ungodly early Mass and being kept for hours aftwards by the abbot, this trilogy’s daring duo makes its escape.

The rain continues, but it barely dampens their spirits. As they gallop whooping into Joram’s ancestral village, they run into an old retainer who informs them that Evaine is in town, teaching the catechism to “the village lads” (but not, evidently, the lasses). The retainer, who bears the moniker of Sam’l [sic], tells Joram about Lord Rannulf’s murder and the king’s drastic response: fifty hostages, with two to be killed per day until someone confesses.

They discuss the situation with a fair amount of alarm, until Evaine appears, declaring grandly that “I certainly have nothing to fear from these good people.” She and Rhys are clearly an item. Equally clearly, Joram is not playing along with her supreme self-confidence. He wants to know what’s really going on.

The scene shifts abruptly to the castle, where Camber is going over what everyone knows so far. Rhys tosses a bomb into the mix by telling the others Daniel Draper’s royal secret, and the probable existence of a living heir to the Haldane throne.

Camber is clearly in charge here. Rhys continues to fill him in on old Dan’s story. Camber wants to know what Rhys and Joram intend to do about the man, presuming they find him. Joram the political animal is cagier than Rhys, and agrees with his father that they have to tread carefully, but he also puts Camber on the spot by playing to his presumed wisdom and experience (and implied strong dislike of the current king).

Camber is not an easy man to manipulate. He’s not in favor of treason or revolution. And he wants to know why Joram came to him instead of the Michaelines. Camber does not approve of the order’s tactics, but he does respect their fighting skills.

He continues to consider all the options, most of them negative, and reminds Joram that if he does go ahead with this, he’ll be endangering others besides himself. Rhys steps in to point out that he and Joram have gone over all this, but they still have to find Cinhil and see if he has what it takes to be king. And they need Camber’s skills and experience to make a final evaluation.

Camber pulls Evaine in, with some teasing and what reads, these days, as patronizing, inviting her to debate the issue in proper academic fashion.

It is, in fact, much in the vein of the prologue, very didactic and Scholastic. Camber is all warm and chuckly and “Joram, never educate your daughters.” This segues into a debate over whether Cinhil’s education, whatever it is, will help or hinder him if he becomes king. Evaine keeps on pressing her points, and her father keeps right on patronizing her.

She has, however, either backed him into a corner or been allowed to do so. Camber agrees to consider the revolution further on several conditions, one of which is that if Cinhil is found and if he is suitable, the younger generation do nothing without Camber’s approval. The upshot of the meeting is that the daring duo will ride to St. Piran’s and interview the two candidates there, and if one is Cinhil, simply tell him about his grandfather’s death.

Just as Camber approves this, Jamie Drummond bursts in with news from Cathan. Cathan has not been able to talk Imre out of executing the first two hostages. There’s nothing Camber can do, though Evaine begs him to try. The chapter ends with many significant glances and unspoken implications.

Chapter 5 takes us to Valoret and the royal court. Finally we meet Cathan, the smaller, darker, “distorted” image of his father, who is the king’s special friend. Cathan’s good friend Guaire of Arliss, who likes wenches and whose current employer is in charge of the executions, is comparing that employer to the one before, with a slight but distinct tinge of homophobia; then the discussion moves on to Cathan’s failure to talk the king out of killing hostages. Guaire agrees with Cathan that this is an awful thing, but since the dead man was a Deryni, he inclines toward species solidarity.

Finally and with fanfare, the king arrives, at elaborate length, with his elder, unmarried sister, Ariella. Ariella is gorgeous and sexy, with lots of cleavage. It soon becomes clear that there’s more between the siblings than there strictly ought to be.

The king makes a brief speech and then starts off the dancing with an ancient Deryni dance called the Bren Tigan, with Ariella as his partner.

Cathan circulates a bit before retreating to a corner to watch the show. Ariella interrupts. She’s all coy and purry and oh so sexy. She asks, terribly solicitously, after Cathan’s wife, who is out of town. Cathan can’t help but refer to “the current crisis.”

Ariella plays dumb, pretending not know what he’s talking about. It takes Cathan a few minutes to catch on. He presses his case, but Ariella isn’t any more sympathetic than Imre, who shows up just as Cathan is getting going. They’re both scornful about the human peasants. Cathan keeps on trying.

Imre starts to lose his temper. Cathan persists. Ariella plays a pretty cat-game, persuading Imre to spare “one life,” because Cathan is such a good friend. Imre thinks this is just dandy. He orders Lord Maldred to take Cathan to the prison to choose the one prisoner who will be allowed to live.

It’s very cruel, and both siblings know it. Cathan has the power of life and death, but only over one human being. For him, it’s torture. He gives in, but Ariella isn’t done yet. He must, simply must, come hunting with the royal entourage tomorrow. He promised. No, he can’t beg off. Imre ever so archly agrees.

Finally they let him go, to face the horror of his responsibility. He makes his lengthily described way to the dungeon. The first person who recognizes him is his old riding instructor, who proceeds to tug hard at his heartstrings. He takes a long time to ponder what he has to do, then asks the old retainer to name each prisoner.

We’re spared all fifty, but it takes a while, as Cathan’s internal monologue continues (and continues). He notes aloud that one of the hostages is a pregnant woman. Maldred’s response is, “Do you want her or the child?”

But Cathan is his father’s son in this much. The unborn baby, if born in time, will make fifty-one hostages, so either way, to keep the number at fifty minus one, two have to be set free. Maldred thinks this is hilarious.

Cathan still hasn’t made his choice, be it noted.

Now he uses Deryni powers to pick someone with a “spark.” Meanwhile the men are coming to take the first two victims. Cathan finally makes his pick: a boy named Revan. He puts a Deryni mind-control whammy on the boy to calm him down, and leaves, to a chorus of gratitude from the peasantry.

Chapter 6 begins with an introductory sequence about how Cathan has blanked on most of the time between leaving the keep and getting his morning wakeup call. He has an execution to watch—incognito, he hoped, but his relative by marriage, Coel Howell (apparently of those Howells), blows his cover. (The relationship is a bit confusing. It’s his wife’s “kinsman,” but Coel calls him “brother,” and the narrative doubles down on this with “brother-by-marriage.”)

Coel needles Cathan about the previous night’s events, the rescue of Revan (“a new page”), and the gossip in the court after Cathan left to make his choice. Coel makes sure Cathan knows Coel has the honor of riding at the king’s side in the morning’s hunt, and warns Cathan not to say or do anything to provoke the king’s temper. Cathan makes his escape, with a zinger of his own about praying for the souls of innocent peasants. How very MacRorie of him, muses Coel.

Cathan attends Mass and then the hunt, and manages to avoid Ariella, but not the two bodies hanging above the city wall. He’s nearly prostrate with grief and guilt.

The timeline stretches from Cathan’s very difficult morning through October, with two executions a day. Cathan is in terrible emotional shape, even while he puts on a happy face for the king and the court. But he keeps trying to lean on Imre.

The hunt continues for three weeks. Imre is sick of Cathan’s pressure; by the time the hunt returns to Valoret, Imre has started snubbing him. Cathan takes off with Revan for St. Liam’s, where he retreats to a single room. The final death, of the pregnant girl, sends him into such a tailspin that Joram summons Camber and Rhys to get him through it.

Finally, on All Souls’ Day, Cathan goes home with his father and brother and Rhys. Cathan’s breakdown has derailed the search for the Haldane heir; it resumes in November, and the daring duo finally ride to St. Piran’s.

As they approach their destination, Rhys has an “are we there yet?” moment. It’s endearing. The priory turns out to be much bigger than Rhys expected. It’s a holding pen for surplus Festils, Joram explains, and accordingly well endowed.

They enter and are received courteously by Brother Cieran, who conducts them to the Prior, Father Stephen. He authorizes Cieran to take them to a room with a grille, through which they speak to the first Brother Benedict. He’s not the one they’re looking for. His grandfather is alive and well.

Rhys is overwhelmed by the task he’s set himself. He doesn’t have much time to indulge: the second candidate comes in, limping and coughing. He’s not a Haldane, either, and he actively hates the grandfather who forced him into the monastery. After a while and some lively ranting, he gives way to  remorse about his outburst and begs Rhys and Joram not to tell anybody. The duo are amenable.

So that’s it for St. Piran’s, aside from a middling-lengthy conversation with Brother Cieran about the second Benedict. Cieran says the man’s mind is going; of course he’s not here against his will. Of course, Joram echoes.

Cieran might not be so happy about his life, either, from the wistful way he watches the due ride out. And there’s more rain coming.

And I’m Thinking: There are layers and layers to the interactions in these chapters. Some I don’t think are intentional: the depiction of Evaine as a childlike creature who is petted, spoiled, and indulged, but all her intelligence is mostly just a parlor trick. The real intellect resides in men. This is underscored by the fact that Evaine’s catechism class is boys only, along with all the teasing about the perils of educating one’s daughters.

Then there’s the deep underlying classism (and, strictly speaking, racism), with an “old retainer” actually referred to by this term, and the nobles either paying humans (who are all of low status) the same kind of attention they’d pay a favorite dog, or sneering at them. And there’s the added layer of Deryni on top of aristocracy; the humans are clearly an inferior species.

As long as we buy into or at least manage to tolerate these issues, there’s quite a bit of poignancy in Cathan’s predicament. And the MacRories, with Rhys, are pretty fully invested in getting a Haldane back into power—Camber’s arguments notwithstanding. Mostly he’s just covering all possible bases, and warning the kids that this is not a game. The stakes are real, and if they lose, they die.

Cathan’s experience, with his nervous breakdown, is as clear a demonstration of this as it can be. It in no way deters any of them, though they make Cathan’s mental health a priority and move back the search for Cinhil Haldane.

As in the first trilogy, good guys have “good” (heteronormative, Christian-flavor) sexuality, but bad guys may prefer something other than “wenches” (i.e., boys), if male; if female, they wear gowns cut down to here, and brandish the sexy all over the place. It’s pretty clear in these chapters that two decades before the Lannister twins made their debut in print, the Festils showed the world how it was done. (No offspring, it appears; Deryni magic must have found a way to prevent pregnancy.) Because nothing says bad like the wrong kind of sexuality.

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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