Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber of Culdi, Chapters 19-21

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber of Culdi! Last time, a powerful ally and secret weapon steps in to support Camber’s cause…

This week the first volume of the trilogy reaches its conclusion. The Camber conspiracy comes to a head, Imre orchestrates the ultimate atrocity, and Cinhil finally gets in touch with his inner Haldane. Next week: Saint Camber.


Camber of Culdi: Chapters 19-21

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 19 moves forward in time to spring. Cinhil is not being a good boy. He’s burying himself in his books, he’s neglecting his pregnant wife, he refuses to consider the idea of activating his powers, and altogether he’s in a colossal sulk.

Meanwhile Evaine and Rhys get married, and Evaine becomes Cinhil’s confidante. Cinhil has feelings for Evaine, which she is aware of but he isn’t. Marriage is a convenient barrier to that aspect, but it allows them to become, in a way, soulmates.

What this does is soften him up to the idea of assuming his powers. His mysticism is analogous to Deryni magic. Finally in March he finds her at prayer, and then she shows him her shiral crystal, which she says can be a link with “the Deity.” She was using it as a meditation aid.

That hooks him. She shows him how it works, and then he wants to try. It takes quite a while and considerable prompting from Evaine, but he gets it to glow. He wants to keep it. Evaine lets him, but makes him promise not to use it unless she’s there. He’s surprised to discover he’s tired.

Evaine immediately reports to her men, who are thrilled. She did it! Now they can close in for the (magical) kill. Drinks all around and toasts to the Cause.

Next morning Cinhil is all stammery and shy and eager to try again. Evaine is happy to oblige.

She hypnotizes him and teaches him to turn the crystal on and off. This becomes a routine. She’s wearing him down, session by session. He’s still neglecting Megan and he’s still stonewalling on the king thing, but Evaine is making headway.

Finally at Rudemas, i.e. Beltane, Camber, with Rhys and Evaine, ambushes Cinhil in his quarters. Evaine hypnotizes him—against his will. Then Camber moves in.

Under Camber’s control, he’s marched to the chapter, which is guarded by Cullen with a sword. Joram is inside, and a ritual has been set up. It involves the Eye of Rom, a MacRorie family heirloom with arcane properties and a suitably mysterious history. They pierce his ear and install the stone.

The ritual continues, at considerable length. Joram is in charge. He explains what they’re doing and why, assisted by Camber. They’re arming him against Imre, they tell him. Cinhil is scared to death.

The rite goes on. And on. It’s heavily religious, with Latin and archangels, and involves a form of Deryni Eucharist, with drugged wine. As the rite and chapter end, Cinhil passes out.

Chapter 20 continues the advance of time. Cinhil comes to after a day and a night, claiming no change in his power status. In the world outside, Imre has backed off from persecuting Michaelines. Since the Willimites have stepped up their attacks against Deryni oppressors, Imre starts persecuting Willimites instead.

Meanwhile Cinhil’s son is born. Cinhil is, by his lights, a doting father. He attends the christening, along with Megan, who has had a difficult birth.

We don’t get to see Megan doing the real work here, but we get the full rite of baptism, with Latin. Archbishop Anscom persuades Cinhil to baptize Aidan Alroy Camber, since a layman can do this. Cinhil is thrilled to pieces.

Just as he completes the christening, the baby dies. Megan faints. Cinhil zeroes in on a traitor who poisoned the sacred salt: one of Anscom’s priests.

The priest musters his powers—and so does Cinhil. The duel arcane is spectacular, with light show and roaring wind.

Cinhil wins. The traitor dies. Anscom is horrified. The priest was the one captured by Imre earlier, and clearly Imre put a spell on him (shades of Derry trying to assassinate Morgan in High Deryni). Cinhil forgives the man and swears royal vengeance against Imre.

Cinhil is finally acting like a king. Everyone bows. It dawns on Camber that he might have spawned a monster.

In Chapter 21, the endgame plays out. Aidan and Father Humphrey are laid to rest. Cinhil has turned into a revenge-driven machine. Camber is even more nervous.

They plan the attack on Imre for the first of December. Meanwhile they learn that Humphrey was a bit of an accident. He wasn’t specifically set to kill Aidan. It just happened that way.

Cinhil is becoming more anti-Deryni as he goes on. Camber’s nervousness continues to increase. Megan is pregnant again, but she is not in good shape, emotionally or physically. She’s getting no love from Cinhil.

Camber tries to make things better for her. Losing sons for the cause, that’s the price they all pay. But he feels bad about poor innocent Megan.

The first of December arrives. Everything is in place. The women have made Cinhil a spectacular warrior outfit complete with sword, and Megan’s gift: an ornate coronet.

Cinhil actually is nice to her, and foretells that this pregnancy will result in twin sons. Megan is all blushing and pretty. Cinhil softens to her, apologizes, and crowns her Queen of Gwynedd.

Scene shift. Imre has finally gone to bed. Anscom is a bundle of nerves. Court has been excruciating, the mood is off, and Ariella has not attended. Rumor is that she’s “quite ill.” Anscom gets the implication, and reflects on incest and the potential threat of a Festillic heir.

When Imre is in bed at last, Anscom meets the conspirators, including Cinhil, at the Portal in the sacristy. Cinhil is in charge, and calls Imre “the tryrant.” Anscom says everything is in place. It can begin.

Scene jump. It’s all over but the duel we know is coming. The conspirators, with Joram in the lead, wake Imre up under pretext “a message for Your Highness.”

Imre is not easy to rouse. When he finally does, Joram and Cullen break down the door and they all burst in. Imre is in his skivvies and who is both arrogant and shocked. “The Haldane! He does exist!”

Cinhil counters by calling him “The Tyrant of Festil.” He shrieks and bolts, but is caught by a pair of Michaelines. He keeps screaming, calling on “Ari” to run.

Camber shouts for someone to catch her—she’s carrying Imre’s heir.  But Ariella, “a night-maned wraith with murder in her eyes,” dives through a secret doorway and escapes.

Imre, captured, calculates the odds. He calls up his magic and polishes his arrogance. Cinhil offers to fight the duel we’ve all been waiting for.

The verbal sparring goes on for a while. Imre is arch and nasty. Cinhil is cold and nasty. He tells Imre what Humphrey did.

Imre is delighted. He sent Humphrey to kill “the last Haldane heir.” And so he did. What irony! It’s lovely.

They keep sparring. Cinhil plays the revenge card. Imre plays the how can a human do anything to a Deryni card. Seriously, his body language says. He’s Deryni. What can Cinhil do?

Cinhil shows him just what an activated Haldane is capable of. Imre figures Cinhil must be Deryni, and offers him riches and lordship. Cinhil harps on the death of his son, on top of all Imre’s other murders and atrocities. Imre starts frothing about Camber being a traitor and he had to kill Cathan but he loved him.

Imre moves in for the kill. He conjures up a horde of Lovecraftian demons. Cinhil barely breaks a sweat. Imre is incredulous. Cinhil calls on him to concede. Not bloody likely, says Imre. He’d rather die.

And he does. Voluntarily. By his own powers.

Cinhil is disgusted. Camber says it was Imre’s only choice. “He was Deryni, Sire.”

Finally Cinhil succumbs to shock and stress. But he’s still conscious. He’s king now, right? he says to Camber. He is, Camber replies.

Meanwhile the Michaelines have displayed Imre’s body to the people fighting outside. They drop it over the balcony while Cinhil looks on, stopped by Camber from intervening.

As the body hits the ground, people start shouting Cinhil’s name. Cinhil goes out to the balcony. He’s in shock, and no longer sustained by revenge.

He internal-monologues about this at some length, while Camber offers him the Crown of Gwynedd. It occurs to him that the same Deryni who raised him up can take him down. But they’re good people, he tells himself. They won’t do any such thing. Oh no.

He has much to think about, and a very fine line to walk between human and Deryni. He takes off his coronet and gives it to Evaine. Camber crowns him formally with a brief ritual.

Cinhil’s response is heavy with significance. “‘Fiat voluntas tua.’ …Let it be done according to thy will.”

And that’s a wrap.

And I’m Thinking: I had mercifully forgotten just how ugly the ending of this book was. Spousal neglect amounting to abuse, infanticide, psychic rape—it has it all.

Structurally the book is a mess. After the rush-rush-rush to find the Haldane and save the humans and the pro-human Deryni, everybody including the villains sits on their thumbs for the better part of a year so the plot can fridge a baby and give Cinhil Sufficient Motivation to get his reluctant royal arse in gear. Imre’s crack team of investigators evaporates, and nothing of any note gets done while Queen Megan gestates. And then suddenly it’s rush-rush-rush again.

At least the baby-poisoning explains why it’s so vitally and illogically important for Cinhil to get married and get his wife pregnant. There has to be a baby for Imre’s mole to kill. Never mind the long, long, long protracted delay or the reader sitting there going, “Why?”

I didn’t pick up on this at all on the first reading. I was thrilled to get more Deryni, I was happy to be back in Gwyedd, and I thought Camber was great. I finally understood some of the underpinnings of the Morgan books. I got what I came for.

Now I’m older and crankier, I’m still enjoying Gwynedd and sexy guys, and Rhys is adorable, but there are so many problems that I’m afraid the book just doesn’t hold up. I could grit my teeth and skim past Morgan because of Kelson, Duncan, and Derry, and I do quite like Arilan. There’s nobody on that level in this book.

There are some compensations, however. Kurtz is a master of elaborate Latin ritual, and she outdoes herself here, especially in the power ritual. And her villains are a big step up from Charissa and Wencit.

Imre is horrible of course, Cinhil calls it when he names him Tyrant, and he’s a racist and a murderer and there’s that incest thing. And yet, Imre is what he is. He doesn’t pretend to be anything else. He’s mentally unstable, he does horrendous things and then collapses in a fit of remorse. He’s a gawdawful king and a pretty terrible person. But he’s honest. He’s what he says on the tin.

I almost love him for making that choice at the end. No way out? Well, then. He’ll go ahead and die, and that’s his decision. Physical courage he has not got, but moral courage? In his twisted way, he’s loaded with it.

And Ariella—you go, girl. Compared to Evaine, who sets Cinhil up for mind-rape by pretending to be his very bestest friend, and Megan, who is a complete wet noodle, Ariella rocks. I believe I shall be cheering her on when she reappears, as I hope she will.

The “good guys” by contrast are downright repellent. When I first read the book, I bought into the line we were sold. Of course the Cause trumps all. Anything that’s done in the name of the greater good is perfectly good. And Camber is the hero for making it all happen, whereas Cinhil is a royal pain until he finally scrapes himself together and acts like a king. He’s even nice to his poor neglected little drip of a wife at the end, and isn’t that good of him? He makes her Queen! Who needs love or affection when you can have a crown?

Four decades and a whole lot of social changes later, I’m not so happy. The things Camber and company do in the name of eliminating Imre are no better than the things Imre does, and in some ways worse because the Camber crew wrap themselves in righteousness. They use Cinhil ruthlessly, and they waste precious little time feeling bad about it. Evaine sucking up to Cinhil and then scampering off to Daddy—it makes me want to spit.

What baffles me is why they don’t just do a regular coup. Why does it have to be a Haldane? Why not a good Deryni? Humans can be just as well off under a Deryni as a human, provided the Deryni is a good human-shepherd instead of a bad one. Camber could find someone suitable. He makes a lot of noise about being good at that.

I know, I know. It has to be a Haldane because ground zero of the Deryni universe is Kelson, and in order to have Kelson, we have to have Cinhil.

Still. In worldbuilding terms, there’s no need for a Haldane at all. Just a Deryni who is mentally stable and morally sound.

It’s as if Kurtz is saying that Deryni aren’t really capable of moral soundness. Their powers corrupt them, one way or another. Haldanes, with induced powers, apparently aren’t as prone to abusing them. The human element, it seems, works as a sort of antidote.

This is very late Sixties. Think about Star Trek and how humans are flawed and emotional and all the rest of it, but they always come across as superior in the end.

I was reminded of Marion Zimmer Bradley’s Darkover, too, while I was reading these chapters. The shiral crystal acts a bit like a Darkovan matrix, and considering the timing, I suspect Kurtz was influenced by the early Darkover books.

Psychic powers on Darkover are terribly dangerous and can seriously affect a person’s morals and sanity. We don’t get as clear a sense of that in Kurtz, but it is there. It’s really evident at the end, when Cinhil puts Camber on notice. There are seeds of a race war there, and we know it will get really bad really fast, because we’ve read the Morgan trilogy and we’ve seen the future.

Deryni powers seem fairly limited, when it comes to that. They seem to consist mostly of mind control, matter manipulation, and slamming away at each other with energy bolts and fancy light shows. Clearly they’re dangerous and even deadly, but it takes a lot out of a Deryni to use the powers, and nobody has weaponized them on a large scale.

Otherwise the coming persecutions don’t make sense, because Deryni could just Portal themselves away, and the evil ones or the Camber-style pragmatists could pretty simply eliminate the human population. I suppose they need the peasants to grow the food and wait on the gentry, but a few well-coordinated spell circles could take care of that, surely.

Maybe they’re just not evil enough. It takes humans to show Deryni how to organize a good genocide.

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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