Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber of Culdi, Chapters 7-9

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber of Culdi! Last time, we were introduced to King Imre and witnessed Cathan’s emotional breakdown in the face of multiple executions.

This week Camber actively joins the rebellion, Rhys and Camber find old Daniel’s long-lost grandson, and wicked Coel Howell closes in for a particularly zestful kill.

 

Camber of Culdi: Chapters 7-9

Here’s What Happens: In Chapter 7, some time has passed, and the ante is up significantly. Joram can’t keep up with the search without arousing suspicion among his superiors, so Camber puts on a monk’s robe and the alias of Brother Kyriell, and goes a-riding with Rhys. The king has been getting more evil by the day, and the common folk who aren’t dying of abuse or neglect are starting to revolt. Camber has had quite enough.

He and Rhys ride to St. Foillan’s Abbey in the snow. The abbot receives them graciously, but is reluctant to relax the cloister’s rule and allow them to speak with one of their monks. Camber leans on him hard, lying freely about having the Archbishop’s permission. The abbot leans back: this abbey’s Brother Benedict has been under a vow of silence for twelve years. Camber leans even harder. The abbot pulls in Rhys, who wins the abbot over with Scripture.

When the monk arrives, Camber has “a strange premonition,” and he isn’t comfortable about it. They address the monk through a grille, and he answers immediately. He thought his grandfather was dead already—and his grandfather’s name was Daniel Draper.

Score! Rhys has a vision and sees both the child Cinhil and the man as he must be now. He shares it telepathically with Camber. Camber shares knowledge of his own: the monk is not alone. The abbot is listening at the door.

Brother Benedict is babbling a bit—he’s thrilled to know Daniel lived much longer than he suspected. He wants to know if his grandfather died well. Rhys reassures him on that point. He pauses to pray.

While Benedict prays, Rhys and Camber have a telepathic conversation (like, suddenly they can do this, um, yay?). Camber convinces the reluctant Rhys to use his healing powers to make Cinhil sick—it’s the only way they can get a close and personal look at him.

Camber rattles on to Cinhil about Daniel’s alleged sins, covering for Rhys, who takes some considerable time to set up for and then work a spell that causes Cinhil to faint. While the monks mill around on the other side of the grille, Camber silently instructs Rhys to offer his help. Rhys does so, and after a fair amount of additional milling and fussing, both Rhys and (at Rhys’ insistence) “Brother Kyriell” are admitted to the infirmary.

Scene break, with mild reader whiplash. Rhys and Camber have withdrawn to “a distant inn,” where Rhys has telepathically filled Camber in on what he found in Cinhil’s mind. It’s impressive; even Camber agrees with that. The question is whether Cinhil will (or can) give up his religious vocation to become king, and if so, whether the price of a Restoration is worth it for any of them, starting with the man himself.

As the chapter ends, Camber is asleep and Rhys is still pondering the mind he was only partially able to read. He wonders how much Cinhil really knows about his identity, and whether Cinhil ever thought he might be called to take the crown.

Chapter 8 returns to King Imre, who is at arms practice. Imre is extremely paranoid about weapons in his presence, and while he’s not a great warrior himself, he’s rather more skilled than he may seem. His favorite weapon is the dagger. Subtle and sneaky, that’s his speed.

While the king spars with his weapons master, Cathan watches. It’s the first time in weeks that he’s been summoned to the royal presence, and Imre has been all flattery and understanding. Cathan is thrilled; his friends much less so.

Coel Howell is not happy, either. Cathan’s ascent has displaced him from the royal favor. Coel offers to spar with the king, who is far outmatched; but Coel is openly and deliberately letting the king win. The king has no clue; he’s delighted have “bested” Coel.

The outcome is that Coel is back in the king’s best graces, and both Imre and Coel insult Cathan by treating him like a servant. It seems clear to Cathan that Coel has orchestrated this, and Imre hasn’t forgiven Cathan.

In the next scene, Imre and Coel are in the royal bath, discussing Cathan. Coel insinuates that Cathan is mentally unstable, and that he may know who killed Rannulf. He keeps right on insinuating about Cathan’s politics and associates, not to mention his family.

Imre swallows the bait whole. He summons Earl Maldred. Clearly an investigation is about to happen.

Meanwhile Joram and Rhys arrive in Valoret for their own investigation of Cathan’s sympathies. The Michaelines, under Vicar General Cullen, have reluctantly joined the rebellion, and are working with Camber to formulate plans. Those plans will be executed right before Christmas.

The daring duo find Cathan looking drawn and pale. He’s been playing with his sons, as has Revan, who is good with them. Cathan wants to keep Revan both because and in spite of the traumatic memories he inspires. Cathan is quite sharp about this.

When he asks why they’ve come, Joram lies that he’s in Valoret on business and to visit “our future brother-in-law here,” meaning Rhys. Then he persuades Cathan to tell him how things are at court. Cathan tells him about the Coel incident, and that he suspects that Coel “actually hates me.” And yes, they are in-laws. Cathan is married to Coel’s sister Elinor.

Coel is ambitious, Cathan says. He wants to rule. And he’s brought Elinor’s half-sister to court with an eye toward marrying her off to Imre. They discuss this, noting that Ariella loathes the lovely Melissa. Cathan speculates that he’s in such disfavor because he’s been fending off Ariella’s advances.

The family/political discussion continues. Cathan is horribly conflicted. Finally Joram asks him outright about his feelings regarding Imre.

Cathan loves Imre like a brother. Nothing changes that.

Which means they’ll be getting no help from him. Joram warns him to be careful, and he and Rhys beat a rapid retreat. They’ll see each other at Christmas, Cathan hopes—Elinor and the boys for sure, but he might have to stay with Imre.

He’s conscious of a rift, but he doesn’t seem aware of what it means. The duo, meanwhile, have a Plan B in place, but they’re not aware that when they leave, each one has a spy on his tail. They don’t even catch on when they actually see the spies.

Joram goes to old Daniel’s late parish house, then to Rhys. Rhys meanwhile heads for the royal archives, but the spy can’t read the books he pulls.

The two spies report, pretty much verbatim, to Coel, who has no idea what any of it means, but he has his own plans, so that’s all right. He sends one agent back to the parish house to find out what Joram was looking for, and takes the other back with him to the archives.

In the meantime, Rhys and Joram, oblivious, are discussing their findings. Rhys has a portrait of the late King Ifor, who looks exactly like Cinhil. Joram notes that no one would have connected them because who looks past a monk’s robe?

Joram has a baptismal record for Royston Draper and his son Nicholas Draper, both legitimate offspring of presumably legal marriages—those complete records he didn’t find. He stows the records with the portrait in Rhys’ medical pouch, smugly confident that no one suspects anything. Tomorrow they’ll leave Valoret—and they’re blissfully unaware that their departure will be observed.

As Chapter 9 begins, Rhys and Joram venture the muddy, frosty road out of Valoret, and eventually—very eventually—catch on to the fact that they’re being followed. It dawns on Joram that they’ve been followed all along, though he’s still overconfident, unlike Rhys, who is terrified that Imre knows what they’ve been up to. Joram doesn’t think Imre’s that bright.

Joram is quite, quite smug. Rhys is quite, quite nervous. They’re going to just let themselves be followed, and bore the agents to death (and possibly freeze them to death) by doing nothing at all at Caerrorie through Yuletide.

Joram’s wrong about Imre; the spymaster is Coel. He is right that one of the spies has reported to his master, and that the master has no clear idea of what Joram and Rhys have been doing. He knows Joram took pages from a parish register, and Rhys from books in the archives, but not exactly which ones or why.

Meanwhile Coel is pursuing another and more personally relevant plan to destroy Cathan. He and Earl Maldred are deep in cahoots (and ale), and there’s a game afoot. Coel is smug. Very, very smug. He leads Maldred out into a dark alley—and sets him up for an assassin. Once that job is done, Coel kills the assassin and stabs himself, loudly and dramatically, and presents the Watch with a suitably bloody and harrowing scene and an equally suitably incriminating document. Then off to bed he goes, triumphant (and very, very smug).

In the morning he limps dramatically to the king’s chambers and demands an audience. Once he’s admitted, he strings the king out interminably, spins his fabric of half-truths and outright lies, and stretches the string yet more, until finally, at the very end, we find out along with Imre that the signature on the parchment is, of course, that of Cathan MacRorie.

 

And I’m Thinking: By the time the great “revelation” burst upon us all at the end of Chapter 9, I was like, really? You had to string it out that long? It’s painfully obvious from the beginning what Coel is up to. Of course he’s framing Cathan. There isn’t anything else he could possibly be doing.

Here I think the classic Kurtzian stretching of tension went well past the snapping point and into “just get it over with already.” It’s a nicely evil plan, and Imre is wonderfully gullible and easy to manipulate—brains are not by any means his strong suit. But it goes on and on and on and on.

By contrast, the search for Cinhil is nice and brief. It gets stretched chronologically by family drama, but that seems aimed more at getting the weather and the season into sync; we don’t have to be dragged along through every turn and twist. We get the good-parts version. Two monasteries, three Brother Benedicts—we don’t have to wait through all five to get the payoff. Cinhil is Bachelor Number Three, and he’s already quite lovely.

When I first read this book I was annoyed with him for reasons that will become apparent later, but in this reading I appreciated the way Joram was sensitive to the genuineness of Cinhil’s religious vocation. He’s truly a man of his God, and he seems to be happy. Joram reflects that if he fulfills his genetic destiny, that happiness will go away.

Joram himself clearly has a genuine vocation, too, though it’s of a different kind: martial and political rather than contemplative and cloistered. The two versions are very realistic in medieval terms, and extremely rare in modern fantasy. We just don’t see this kind of deeply ingrained religious mindset, written without irony or negative judgment—as if the Protestant Reformation had never existed. Which of course, in this world, it didn’t.

Poor Cathan is in a terrible position. He’s not very bright at all, and he’s blindly and indeed stupidly loyal to his dear friend who is clearly incapable of any such feelings. But he’s not the only triumph of the stupid in these chapters. Joram and Rhys are unbelievable innocents—no earthly clue that they’ve been followed, and Joram the supposedly political animal drastically underestimates the opposition.

You would think that with a royal dynasty of such outrageous wickedness and caprice, and a father who served that dynasty for decades and managed to retire alive and with his estates intact, either or both of the sons would be more politically ept than they are. Cathan is an idiot and Joram is both smug and an idiot. Rhys is utterly clueless, but he doesn’t pretend to be otherwise, so he’s the most honest and intelligent of the lot, by my reckoning.

I also wonder why, if Deryni are telepathic, neither Rhys nor Joram has the faintest clue about the spies. There’s no sign of any attempt at concealment, no indication of Deryni magic at all, just normal human-style sneaking around. Worldbuilding hole there, with bonus plot-stupidity.

I’m also missing the big blowout with the Vicar General—it’s an important alliance, and it gets a quick line, whereas we spend pages and pages and pages waiting to find out about Cathan’s signature on that document.

All in all, not the best of Kurtz, though we get that nice quick zero-in on Cinhil. I notice that both sides do a lot of lying and deceiving, and Coel and Joram are about equal in the smug sweepstakes—though I give Coel the win there; he actually gets his job done.

And Camber gets some derring-do. Joram finally has to submit to religious restrictions, and Camber runs out of patience. Rhys is kind of weak and passive here, and very dependent on his future father-in-law, but somehow that’s OK. Maybe because he’s so adorable when he’s nervous.

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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