Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber of Culdi, Chapters 16-18

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber of Culdi! Last time, Joram and Rhys played “the treason game” as they drugged and abducted Cinhil from his secluded monastery.

This week Imre and company close in on the Camber conspiracy, Cinhil is by no means an easy nut for Camber to crack, and a powerful ally/secret weapon steps in to support Camber’s cause.


Camber of Culdi: Chapters 16-18

Here’s What Happens: Chaper 16 continues in Omniscient Narrator Voice, with a summary of Anscom’s report to the king, and a note on its omissions (including the description of Brother Kyriell). Anscom is protecting Camber.

The report goes to Earl Santare, who has been tapped to investigate the matter. We’re still in our detective thriller, piling up evidence to uncover what the reader already knows. Coel gets Anscom’s letter and immediately deduces most of the truth, though he pegs Kyriell as Joram rather than Camber. He’s still not quite there on Nicholas Draper’s real identity, but his aides are well ahead of him. Coel just can’t believe that Deryni would supplant a Deryni king with a—a human. Even a Haldane.

Coel and Santare bicker over all of this, and wonder at length where Camber is. The snipefest is brought to an abrupt halt by an urgent summons to the king.

Imre is a right taking, this time over the Michaelines. They’ve up and disappeared. Santare mulls over the logistics and significance of this, while Imre continues to rant and rave. Coel meanwhile is having a highly uncomfortable wake-up call—all his beautiful plotting has been completely outclassed by the Camber conspiracy.

Imre, “with a malicious smirk contorting his face” (ouch), dashes off an order and barks at Santare and Coel to get cracking on it. We get to see a chunk of it—it’s quite lengthy and very detailed, and it abolishes the Michaeline order and commands the Vicar General to surrender to the king. Coel can’t even stand to read the whole of it. These days it would have a tl:dr on it, and probably a trigger warning.

I have to admire Imre for managing to be that coherent and that much in command of all the details, considering how far off the rails he’s flown. That’s a fine mind, however unstable it is.

The scene shifts rather abruptly to a sacred ritual with Latin liturgy. Cinhil is celebrating Mass, and Camber is watching and pondering two weeks’ worth of failure to win Cinhil over. Cinhil is a monument to passive aggression, but there may be a chink in the wall at last.

This is a tease without an immediate payoff. Alister Cullen interrupts for a spate of reminiscing about old times and a discussion of leaving the priesthood for a secular office. Camber did it to become an earl, which eventually led to this moment (because it’s all about Camber, really), and they chew over the fact that Cinhil really is not getting his head around the situation.

But Camber has what he believes is an ace in the hole. Cinhil, who apparently has no access to or desire for a mirror, has undergone a stealth makeover, and they’re about to spring the portrait of Ifor on him, with handy mirror beside it.

He’s going to get something else sprung on him, too. Cullen’s list of potential brides. They have to get him wedded, bedded, and the girl pregnant ASAP.

Camber is a bit wry about this. Cullen is adamant. Christmas Eve—that’s the wedding date. One week from today.

Camber notes that his ward, Megan de Cameron, is on the list. Camber is not a fan of arranged marriages unless the girl is willing and can “care for” the man she’s matched to. Cullen the celibate priest accuses him of “sounding like a father.” This is rather funny, they agree.

So, Camber says. Christmas Eve. Fine, then. He’ll set it up, and get Cinhil and the (unspecified) girl to agree.

Because Camber is the Arranger. Or is that the Fixer?

Cullen then shifts to another subject. The king’s reprisals have started. The Commanderie (sic) has been taken and trashed by the king’s troops. They’ll be destroying a “Michaeline establishment” weekly until Cullen surrenders. Which is not going to happen, says Cullen.

Cullen is as badass as one would hope, considering his job in the story.

Cullen goes off to intercept Cinhil after Mass. Cinhil finishes and leaves. Camber goes down to the chapel and meets Rhys, who gives him the daily Cinhil report. Cinhil is in bad emotional shape. During the Consecration, Rhys could actually feel it in the air.

Aha! says Camber. This is Most Interesting. He enlists Rhys to help him magically scan the altar, which they both do, in detail.

It’s a revelation. Cinhil has powers. He’s human, as Rhys is quick to point out. He is not Deryni. But he’s not standard-issue human, either.

Camber sees that as the potential for “a king for both humans and Deryni!” (Direct parallel to the end of High Deryni, there.)

Not bloody likely, says Rhys. Deryni would never stand for it.

Camber opines that Deryni are, basically, mutated humans (“changed,” says Camber). This presents the possibility that Cinhil might be given Deryni powers, to become “a functional Deryni.”

Rhys isn’t buying it. The whole point is to get humans to accept a human king in place of the magical and evil Festils. Right, says Camber, but the risk they’re running is that humans will turn against not just Imre but all Deryni. If their human king has Deryni powers, maybe that will head off the anti-Deryni backlash.

This is a race war, and Camber’s best hope is to defuse it by giving both sides the same king. Wow, says Rhys. Complicated. Sure thing, says Camber, and Rhys doesn’t even know about Imre’s latest atrocity.

Chapter 17 moves on with the observation that the Michaeline persecution isn’t nearly as bad as what Imre does after that. Some of his men have captured a Michaeline priest, Humphrey of Gallareaux, at St. Neot’s.

Imre joins Coel and Santare for the interrogation. Humphrey has been undercover as a simple country cleric, but his Deryni discipline is obvious to Imre.

He undergoes interrogation, insists that he was on retreat and was not up to date on the news, and runs through Imre’s patience fairly quickly. Imre informs him that he’s subject to execution for treason. He counters by claiming benefit of clergy.

Coel slithers in with the observation that as long as no one knows Humphrey is in custody, no one can challenge whatever his captors want to do. Imre offers Humphrey his life in return for information. He leans on this by pointing out that he comes from a ruthless family, and he’s perfectly willing to do whatever it takes.

Humphrey stands firm. Imre sends for a Healer. He wants to make sure the man is healthy physically “before I start tampering with his mind.”

Meanwhile, back in the sanctuary, our heroes are doing a bit of that themselves, but that’s all right, they’re just using “coercion rather than brute force.” Cinhil has to be able to rule once he’s, ahem, persuaded; versus Humphrey, who can simply die after his captors are done with him.

Cinhil’s makeover is complete, and he looks exactly like his ancestor’s portrait. It’s been hung where he can’t help but see it, and he keeps stealing glances at it.

But he’s still not giving in. He’s quite strong-willed—which is part of his power package, if he would only submit to his Destiny—and it’s Christmas Eve and he is absolutely not on board with the latest set of plans.

Camber, backed up by Evaine, Joram, and Rhys, is working hard to talk Cinhil around to their side of the issue. Cinhil is all Team Self-Realization, and they are all Team Selfless Savior of the People. Camber so far loses his temper as to threaten to thrash Cinhil, and Cinhil snaps back with royal command.

And that, Camber is swift to point out, proves that Cinhil is turning into a prince after all. Camber drives the point home, hard, and Cinhil falls back, but not so far as to surrender.

He tries to make them understand the depth of his vocation. It’s like grasping sunlight, he says—and he starts to glow.

Just as Camber gets set to leap magically on the opening, Cullen interrupts. Camber and Rhys are disappointed. Joram and Evaine don’t seem to know what’s going on.

Cullen has come to announce that Lady Megan is here. That, Camber informs Cinhil, is his bride to be.

Cinhil is appalled. Camber is implacable. He takes Evaine and Rhys with him to greet Megan, leaving Cinhil with Joram.

Cinhil is severely upset. Joram is all, “You can save everybody and you’re being selfish.” With carefully measured doses of Scripture. Cinhil moans in agony. Joram leaves him to it.

Left to himself, Cinhil indulges in a frenzy of prayer. He has no living clue what to do in front of, or with, a female. This gives way to a long slide into Stockholm syndrome. He’s not getting out of this, he has no control over anything that happens. And maybe after all that, he doesn’t want to. It’s so very, very tempting.

He frets and fribbles and wibbles and agonizes, and then she appears: timid, shy, and all of fifteen years old to his forty-three. Cinhil is half gentle, half bitter. Megan is all about love and the Cause: she’ll give her life to end Imre’s reign. But not without love. And she turns and runs.

It’s terribly awkward. Cinhil wants to go after her but can’t bring himself to do it. He collapses in tears and stays there for hours, until it’s time for his wedding.

As Chapter 18 begins, Archbishop Anscom receives a visitation from a mysterious, shrouded, unidentifiable Deryni, who asks him to hear his confession. Once they’re in private, he’s revealed as Camber.

Camber has boxed Anscom in neatly with the seal of the confessional, so he can’t betray Camber to the king’s men, not that Anscom would do it in any case. Camber wants Anscom with come with him by Portal, playing the classic Just-Trust-Me gambit. Everybody else is there, Camber says, and they would like Anscom to celebrate Midnight Mass. “When you see, you’ll understand why.”

Anscom doesn’t even blink. He calls in sick from his official duties in the cathedral, and orders that he not be disturbed.

Camber is amused. This is just like old times.

Anscom knows exactly where the nearest Transfer Portal is. Camber isn’t giving him the destination, but he’s fine with that.

As soon as he gets there, he gets the full brief via mind-transfer, and he’s appropriately shocked and “You can’t do that.” Camber isn’t fazed. He needs Anscom’s archiepiscopal authority to help convince Cinhil to give in—and also to legitimize Cinhil’s lineage and his heirship, cancel his monastic vows, and marry him to Lady Megan.

And if Anscom can’t or won’t do that, Alister Cullen will have to. Which is yet another big shock—and a trigger to Anscom’s competitive instincts. There’s no way he’ll let anybody else do what Camber wants. And will he? Camber wants to know.

Of course he will. Camber the master manipulator has put Anscom right where he wants him.

Meanwhile Cinhil is still digging in his heels, arguing with Joram yet again. Camber walks in and wields the Archbishop like a weapon.

It takes the Archbishop a fair bit of time, because Cinhil is a seriously hard nut to crack, but really, as soon as Anscom appears, it’s all over but the shouting, the whining, and the “it’s not fair!” Finally Cinhil breaks down in tears, and Anscom pats him and there-theres him and prays with him. It’s done, Cinhil is finally conquered.

Just before midnight, an exhausted and overexcited Megan waits with Evaine in the listening gallery while the men gather in the chapel below. They’re still not sure the wedding will happen. Evaine wonders if Megan and Cinhil can make a go of it even if it does. Megan is beautiful (of course), but Cinhil is a priest.

Megan is equally pessimistic. Cinhil was not kind to her. Evaine’s comfort is very much of the patriarchal sort: Megan has been a commodity on the marriage market since birth, unlike Cinhil, for whom it was never an option.

Megan counters with Cinhil’s nasty remark about her being a “royal broodmare.” That triggers Evaine’s temper quite nicely. And now Megan is all soft and demure and making excuses for the poor hurting abusive male.

Evaine observes that Megan is in love. Lord knows what with (tall dark and handsome? Grey Haldane eyes? Royal blood?), but there it is.

And of course Evaine has Rhys, who loves her, but Megan can’t be sure of Cinhil’s love at all. Oh, says Evaine, but he needs a “gentle, loving wife” who can soothe his fears and cater to his neediness and be aware that he’s really just a poor scared little boy. We women have to support our men, you know. Because the men do the Important Things and they neeeeed us to tell them how Important they are. And it’s all so daaaangerous, and we won’t stop them, will we? And they won’t stop us.

Gag. Me.

Megan buys it, of course, like any other good little Fifties housewife. But she begs Evaine to never, ever leave her. And they hug. While down below, the men march through the glittering and elaborate religious rite.

Then it comes. The Archbishop calls out Cinhil to identify himself, and Cinhil claims his Haldane heritage. Rhys and Joram confirm it, with documentation. Anscom crowns him with the circlet of a prince in exile, Cinhil accepts it, and Anscom releases him from his religious vows, citing all the reasons Camber and company have drummed into him for weeks.

Then Evaine brings Megan out, and Cinhil, terrified, exchanges marriage vows. He continues in a fog of terror through the rest of the Mass and into his bedchamber.

There follows an amazingly sweet and awkward scene between the fifteen-year-old bride and the forty-three-year-old virgin. She takes the initiative. It’s all very tender. And then it’s hours later and Camber is checking in, and he’s pleased with what he sees. The patron saint of marriage beds has been on the job, and done it well.

And I’m Thinking: I am not feeling the love with all the detective-story elements. It’s pages and pages upon pages and more pages of information we already know. It’s also the same thing over and over. Imre being cray-cray but shrewd, Coel not being nearly as bright as he thinks he is, and various spear-carriers being, for the most part, brighter than Coel. I don’t think we need the vast bulk of it, just the parts where Imre has another psychotic break and does something either awful or hideously clever or both.

The enormous mental and emotional shift of the first trilogy, Warin’s conversion from anti-Deryni fanatic to fanatical pro-Deryni and pro-Haldane partisan, was much too abrupt and difficult for me to believe. That certainly can’t be said of Cinhil’s transformation from maiden monk to married prince and potential king. It’s a long, hard-fought, grueling process, and neither side gives any quarter. Camber finally has to roll out the biggest of ecclasiastical big guns: the Primate of Gwynedd, who is as close to the Pope as this world knows. He commands Cinhil’s obedience by canon law, and he gets it.

Of course it’s all connected to nepotism and the old-boy network, which is quite an appropriate medieval way of doing things. Anscom is Camber’s childhood friend, and he is also human. The opportunity to get rid of a tyrant and restore the former, human dynasty appeals to him strongly, and he has no problem going along with Camber’s plot. He does not appear to be worried about the consequences, either, which is a bit of an eyebrow-raiser.

So Camber wins, and Cinhil succumbs. The good of the many outweighs the needs of the one.

And then there’s the female element. Oh, my word. Oh dear. So very, very Fifties. Sweet little soft-spoken kitteny Megan with her whim of steel, and Evaine so very, very “we exist to support our poor, struggling boy-men.”

As a historian I am not as judgey about the age gap between Megan and Cinhil as readers now would tend to be. It’s not by any means unheard of, and Megan is well trained and thoroughly conditioned for her sole purpose in life, which is to marry a nobleman and produce his (preferably and predominantly male) heirs. She knows what she’s doing. Cinhil, as Evaine points out, does not. It’s Megan’s job to make sure he learns, and then does it.

I suppose her being fifteen makes it much easier for her to fall in love with her tall, dark, handsome, royal, and utterly needy and dependent husband. She’s young enough to be a romantic, but old enough (just) avoid charges of pedophilia.

Though really, she could be a few years older and still get the job done.

Camber, as we’ve seen amply demonstrated by now, is one cold-hearted son of a bitch, but he knows his instruments. Megan’s marriage could be a death sentence, but he gambles that even if this round fails, he can spirit a pregnant Megan away and keep the Haldane line (with its variant of the Deryni mutation) going. And meanwhile, he can give Cinhil a wife who is all gaga over him but also able to lead him, and gives Megan a husband who can, if all goes well, make her queen.

In medieval terms, it’s a good match, and a worthy gamble. In modern terms, it’s horrifying. But this isn’t a modern setting. Even with Evaine talking like the Ladies’ Home Journal ca. 1956.

I admit to a certain level of Schadenfreude about the karma Camber is going to run head-on into. He’ll deserve every bit of it.

This time around, I really do feel for Cinhil. The first time, I wanted to slap him silly. Now I get it. Sure he’s being selfish, but that’s what a saint does. And he’s being true to himself. He’s in an intolerable situation, he has no conceivable way out (suicide being absolutely not an option for a devout Christian), and he has every right in the world to fight back.

The fact he fights so hard and long is actually a factor of his genetics. He has a strong will, which is characteristic of the Haldanes, and he’s really, really hard to shake once he’s made up his mind. It takes the master manipulator of his age, with major backup, to shift him at all.

And he has powers. It’s lucky for Camber he’s such a total innocent. If he were a cold and twisty bastard like Camber himself, or unstable like Imre, he’d be a serious menace.

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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