Welcome to the weekly reread of Katherine Kurtz’s Camber trilogy! Last week we finished Camber of Culdi, and generally we felt as if the book had not held up in the reread.
This week we’re starting Saint Camber. I’ll be breaking it up a bit differently than heretofore, as the chapters vary in length—trying to do about 40 pages of the first-edition paperback per week. So we begin with the Prologue and proceed through the first two chapters.
Saint Camber: Prologue and Chapters 1 and 2
Here’s What Happens: We begin in the historian’s voice again (because all of this is seen through the lens of King Kelson’s time), with a Prologue that briefly sets the scene. Six months have passed since King Imre’s body was flipped over the balcony. Queen Megan, in proper royal-broodmare style, has produced twin sons. King Cinhil seems to be resigned to his fate, but Camber, this world’s bigger, badder Machiavelli, is twitchy. Imre’s sister Ariella, pregnant with Imre’s incestuous heir, is holed up in Torenth, and Camber just knows she’s getting ready to strike.
In fact, while Camber is fussing about her, Ariella, with baby latched on and nursing, is working evil magic. Evil, evil magic. Oh yes. Evil. With spells. And armies.
And so it begins. In Chapter 1, it’s raining in Valoret. In fact, it’s flooded in Valoret. An all-male gathering, led by Camber, meets in the keep. The king is avoiding the meeting, as usual. Everyone there is Deryni except Derry—er, Guaire of Arliss.
Camber is sure the miserable weather is the product of sorcery. Jeb (yes, Jeb), the Michaeline Grand Master, is muttering over military arrangements, mud, and the difficulty of moving troops in the rain. Rhys is pretending he understands. Guaire, who doesn’t need to pretend, is glum. Like Camber and Jeb, he knows Ariella can field more troops, and it’s not raining where she is.
Guaire suggests using Transfer Portals. Nope, says Alister Cullen, the Michaeline Vicar General. Cinhil won’t stand for open use of magic, and most of the usable troops are humans, who are not feeling charitable toward Deryni these days.
There is a brief discussion of human sentiments toward Deryni magic. The situation is not good, and Cinhil is not helping. He’s retreated into his priestly self again, and his sons are imperfect: one is sickly, and the other is healthy but with a clubfoot. Cinhil believes they’re God’s judgment on him for breaking his vows. And he blames Camber.
While Camber chews this over, Evaine appears. She is in a mood. “Our little queen,” in Camber’s words, is suffering from postpartum depression. Camber blames the king.
Suddenly there is an alarum without: Joram and the king, shouting, and a man in military garb and a hysterical woman. The woman throws herself at the king, who is repelled. She’s begging him to have mercy on an old man. The soldier attacks the king verbally, as “an apostate priest,” and magically, with a blinding light show.
Joram and Cinhil fight back. Everybody else converges on them. Camber just manages to see a dagger in the woman’s hand. Guaire tries to stop her, but trips. Camber screams and leaps, and there’s blood everywhere. Jebediah has hacked the woman to pieces with his sword.
Cinhil goes completely berserk. He blasts the living hell out of the man, then the others pile on. Camber grabs hold of Cinhil and talks him down.
The woman is dead. The man is alive, but barely. Camber is bleeding. Cinhil is sulky. The man was trying to kill him. He deserves to die.
Rhys is not happy. Neither is Jeb, who didn’t mean to kill the woman.
Cinhil is still acting like a sullen teenager. He calls the man “rabble.” The man is actually a Deryni nobleman, and the woman was his sister. They were pleading on behalf of their father, whom Cinhil and his allies imprisoned.
The man curses Cinhil up one side and down the other. Cinhil stops his heart.
Cinhil is still making excuses. Camber argues. Cinhil shows himself to be clearly anti-Deryni, and he doesn’t trust Camber.
Camber keeps trying to get Cinhil to be reasonable and remember the siblings’ father. Cinhil keeps refusing to be anything but arrogant and sulky. He accuses the others of favoring the prisoner because he’s Deryni “like yourselves.”
Everyone including Guaire is horrified by such open racism. Rhys finally gets Cinhil to lay off so Rhys can heal him. Then Camber takes charge. Cinhil tries one last rebellion—denying the bodies proper burial—but Camber and Cullen stare him down.
Camber is not in good shape. He’s more seriously wounded than he wants anyone to know. Joram and Evaine pick up on it, and so does Rhys.
Rhys finishes healing Cinhil, who is apologetic—until he asks Camber for permission to go, and Camber says he doesn’t need it. Then he erupts again and stomps out.
Finally Cullen catches on to the fact that Camber is hurt. While Rhys works on him, Camber observes that Cinhil seems to be listening to the priests—Cullen and Joram—in preference to the layfolk, including Camber. That might not last long, Cullen says: he’s been promoted and will be leaving for Grecotha. He’ll do what he can from there, though that might not be much.
Camber is worried about Cinhil’s growing anti-Deryni sentiments, and Camber’s increasing inability to work with him. Joram bursts out that he almost wishes they hadn’t deposed Imre. Perish the thought, says Camber, who seems to believe the people will learn to love Cinhil “in time.” Or he’s trying to make himself believe it.
Joram is not nearly so sure. He actually suggests that Camber might have had a better shot at being king.
Camber is not royal, as he points out. He’d just be another usurper. Cinhil is the rightful king. He’ll learn to be a good one. Camber is sure he will.
Joram continues to differ. Camber points out that he’s not only not royal, he’s almost sixty. His heir is seven years old. He’s not a viable alternative. Joram wants to “make a difference,” and they’ll do it through Cinhil. They’ve sacrificed too much for that cause to give up now.
They have to decide what to do about Cinhil, but Rhys steps in and stops Camber. He wants to do deep work on the wound, and he doesn’t want Camber to help. By which Camber deduces that he’s in worse shape than Rhys wants him to know.
Rhys patches him up “as good as new.” He had quite a lot of damage. Rhys appears to be completely un-challenged by two magical healings in a row. Camber goes back to the discussion of what to do about Cinhil. Joram goes right back to the fact that Cinhil is Not a Camber fan, and he’ll be using Camber as a scapegoat next.
Camber agrees, in a way calculated to get Joram even more aggravated, but Cullen intercedes. There’s the little matter of the war, and that really should take precedence over personality clashes.
Camber has an idea about that. There’s a spell in an ancient manuscript, which he thinks he can use to link with Ariella.
Evaine is all for it. So are Rhys and Joram, she says. Cullen wants to be assured that the magic isn’t dark. He doesn’t really believe Camber that it isn’t, but he’s all crusty and gruff and somebody’s got to keep a level head when we do what we’re going to do no matter what I think.
There’s an interlude of teasing, which ends with everybody agreeing to get started once Camber’s had a chance to rest and recoup—as in, tonight after Vespers. Joram is with Cullen in not quite trusting Camber, but they’re on board anyway.
Camber gives them a list of things to bring. As he organizes the magical potluck, the chapter ends.
Chapter 2 switches viewpoints to Cinhil, who is in a right taking. He’s finally processing what he’s just done, and he realizes Camber was right. He was wrong to kill. But he’s not at all sure Camber is right about the curse not being a big deal.
Then he spins off again on being Camber’s puppet, until he spins back to serenity via prayer, which spins yet again to confusion over being healed by Rhys with Deryni magic. That’s good, right? Rhys is good. Almost like a priest. Sort of.
That leads him toward his special secret chest at the foot of his bed. He’s been stockpiling priestly vestments and all the rest of the paraphernalia of the Mass, which someday he plans to celebrate again. He dreamily fondles his treasures, till Alister Cullen comes knocking. Then he has a few seconds’ wallow in guilt, before he lets Cullen in.
Cullen professes to be worried about him. Cinhil is apologetic. Cullen leans a bit on how nasty Cinhil was to Camber. Cinhil gets his back up about that—and then Cullen asks him if he’s learned to live with his situation. Cinhil starts to wonder if Cullen is reading his mind.
No, of course not, Cinhil tells himself. He answers Cullen with a long aggrieved whine about how “your Deryni friends” snatched him away from his nice comfortable priesthood. Camber especially. And the archbishop. And Evaine—she betrayed him. And his babies are sickly and he’s in a forced marriage and he’s all alone and he’s so very, very sad.
He ends up crying on Cullen’s shoulder. Almost as if he can trust Cullen.
Cullen says he wants to help. But he puts his foot in it by saying he wishes he could undo it all if it wouldn’t endanger the kingdom. And that’s exactly the problem, Cinhil hastens to point out.
Cinhil wants to be alone. Cullen leaves, but not before he asks Cinhil to come to the war council in the morning. Cinhil mutters about his lack of military knowledge. Cullen dangles a lure: a hint of a suggestion that “By then we may have additional information.”
Cinhil picks up on it. He cares in spite of himself, he says.
Cullen has further news. He’s been named bishop of Grecotha.
Cinhil is happy for him, but unhappy that Grecotha is so far away. “Then I shall never see you.”
Cullen keeps on talking about it, assuring Cinhil he’ll visit as often as he can, and noting that he has to give up “my Michaelines.” That’s Cinhil’s fault, Cinhil says; Cullen gave them up for him.
They bond at some length over prayer and what to call each other. Cullen takes his leave, and Cinhil reflects on how maybe he can trust that particular Deryni. And maybe use him—get him, or Cinhil’s former superior Oriss, to let Cinhil be a priest again.
Cinhil ponders Oriss, who is human. He’s the new Archbishop of Rhemuth, which makes him number two after Anscom of Valoret. They don’t know each other personally. Still. There may be ways. And Cinhil can celebrate the Mass again. Exclamation point.
He ponders this for quite a long time, until he has an Idea. He summons Father Alfred, his secretary. He’s hugging himself over his own brilliance. Both prelates need gifts, after all. Multiple sets of vestments will be just the thing. And if one set ends up with Cinhil Haldane (exclamation point), who’s to be the wiser?
And I’m Thinking: Oh boy. Two chapters and a prologue and we’re already into a spectacular cascade of bad decisions. Camber’s brilliant statesmanship is looking more and more like a chronic inability to either carry his plans to fruition or get along with the king he’s supposed to be serving. The king’s actions since Imre’s deposition have been not only poorly conceived but apparently uncontrolled to any notable degree, and Camber has not been paying any more attention to details than Cinhil has.
That literally blows up in his face. Rhys fixes him up with perfect ease, but it is a bit of a wakeup call for Camber. It’s doubtful whether he’ll actually learn from it.
And speaking of bad decisions, the wife Camber found for Cinhil is a disaster. This is not just Camber being a lousy planner, it’s the author showing a fairly complete failure to see women as human beings. A good woman cannot rule. She has to be a nice little girl like Evaine, doing awful things and running happily to Daddy, or an abused child like Megan, who pops out babies and otherwise has no purpose for existing.
In a world in which women have any agency to speak of, Camber would have found Cinhil a grown woman, still of childbearing age, who could manage his immaturity, breed his heirs, and if necessary teach him how to be a king. Instead Camber, the great statesman, gives him a child with no more sense or worldly experience than he has. It’s a bad choice from start to finish.
Ariella now…she is badass. She is supposed to be just bad, ignoring the baby at the breast while she practices black magic. And of course the baby is her brother’s offspring, which is incest and by definition horrible.
But times, and perceptions, have changed. The good, obedient women show a clear lack of agency and a distinct deficiency of moral fiber. The bad girl not only has agency, she’s a single mom practicing major sorcery and coordinating a war.
Since this book was published, we’ve rehabilitated the Wicked Witch of the West, not to mention Maleficent. I say let’s give Ariella some love, too.
Cinhil, however, is not looking good. In the last book I felt for him; he was ripped out of his monastery, mind-raped and forced into a role he never had the least desire to take on. He was selfish, yes, and hung up on sainthood, but in medieval terms that was not at all a bad thing.
Here, he’s gone pathological. He’s sulking and pitching tantrums—some of them deadly—like a spoiled adolescent. And he’s developed a fetish for the priesthood. Nobody knows just how severe this is, even while Camber (making yet another bad decision) convinces Cullen to pull an Evaine on him and trick Cinhil into trusting him.
Cinhil is, in fact, well on his way to being as unstable as Imre, and he’s just as arrogant and just as casually dangerous with his powers. He’s equally racist, too. How we’re supposed to believe he’s any kind of improvement over his predecessor, I don’t know. And Camber certainly isn’t showing signs of being able to fix it. So far, he’s gone a fair way toward making it worse.
It’s a mess. It’s going to become even more of one, that’s clear. Lots more, considering how bad things are at the very beginning.
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.