Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Saint Camber, Chapters 3-4

Welcome to the weekly reread of Saint Camber! Last time, the players moved into position, and it was clear that Camber and Cinhil are making all the wrong decisions. Ariella on the other hand has been a badass multi-tasker, practicing major sorcery and coordinating a war all while being a single mom to a set of twins…

This week Camber and company go on a magical spying mission (with some malodorous post-mission comic relief), and the Haldane faction gets ready for war.

 

Saint Camber: Chapters 3-4

Here’s What Happens: As Chapter 3 opens, Camber is chilling in his room. Guaire mothers him with a bath and food. He does some room prep, and then he takes a nap.

I said Camber was a cold-blooded bastard, didn’t I?

He takes his sweet time pondering the ritual ahead, thinking fond thoughts about his family and friends, and getting all sensual about his red velvet royal-hand-me-down robe. Then the principals gather, and inch…by…inch we creep toward the ritual.

The various shopping expeditions have had various degrees of success. Cullen sort of incidentally found a mother lode of Ariella-connected jewelry: the Haldana necklace. Camber is going to use it to mess with her mind.

Camber blows everybody away with the brilliance and the danger of his plan. Jaws drop, eyebrows raise. Cullen is dubious. Camber is full of himself.

They all move to the room Camber has prepped. Inch by inch once more we creep toward the ritual. Camber explains in detail, and assigns everyone his (or her) place.

And so it begins. Page upon page of classic Kurtzian religio-magical process, most of which we’ve seen before, with candles and Latin and archangels. The meat of it, very eventually, is the use of the necklace to focus on Ariella. The ritual continues in heavily liturgical fashion, with prayer after prayer. Also incense. And flatly modern procedural instructions and questions, which are kind of jarring in context.

It all adds up to a very elaborate setup for a telepathic search and grab. Finally it comes into focus. “He was watching Ariella work her weather magic!” (Exclamation point in the original.)

Camber struggles a little bit, but fairly quickly gets the whole picture—just before Ariella senses the spy and moves to retaliate. Joram and the rest have to extricate Camber, while Ariella’s storm surges over and past.

Camber apologizes for overreaching and discovers that nobody else experienced the mind-meld with him. They’re all clueless. He wants to collapse and Rhys wants to heal him, but he has to debrief first. This is very dramatic, with Camber swaying and fainting in between spurts of intel.

He gets it all out. Everybody but Evaine is worried. He does this, she says. “He’ll be fine in the morning.”

Rhys is a little dismayed to discover that she’s abetted her father in this kind of major magical overreach before. But hey. It’s all good. It’s important to her, after all. And he’s sure she’ll “take reasonable precautions.” She thinks this is quite amusing. Then she asks him to help her set up wards around the unconscious Camber. Same ones we’ve seen multiple times in these books. Oh, Kurtz loves her semiliturgical magical rituals.

When that’s done—at considerable length—Evaine giggles. It’s so funny, she says. It’s hilarious. In the heat of the moment after the ritual, she dumped the Haldana necklace down the privy.

Oh dear, says Rhys. Somebody will have to dig it out. It’s so very amusing to decide “who needs a little humbling.”

Chapter 4 reveals the designated victim: Camber himself. Not that he needs to be humbled, oh no, of course not. He just doesn’t want the world to know what they’ve been up to.

He makes easy work of it. A little mind-scan, a stretch into the shaft, a quick wash, and it’s as good as new.

Once he and Rhys are cleaned and deodorized, everybody meets in council—even Cinhil. The mass of intel has been processed and turned into a plan.

Cinhil is bewildered by the speed of it all. He’s also intelligent enough to notice that the latest intel is quite different from previous versions. But he’s too confused to ask questions.

He worries. Ariella is extremely devious. She’s female, after all, and women are always changing their minds. He frets, and decides to talk to Rhys. He’s rather surprised that he cares.

He corners Rhys and wants to know why everybody’s suddenly so confident. Rhys “glibly” pretends he has no clue, no, none at all. But Cinhil is brighter than he looks. He presses until Rhys allows as how there was a “spy,” though Rhys doesn’t tell Cinhil who it is or how he did it. Cinhil keeps pushing, and Rhys tells him about Ariella’s child.

That hits Cinhil hard. Ariella’s misbegotten son is healthy, while his are not. He has a minor meltdown, but controls himself and extracts more information. The weather is Ariella’s fault, and now that’s known, Deryni can deal with it.

This is a dilemma for Cinhil, who is not at all reconciled to his own powers. Before he can melt down further, however, Evaine and the Queen arrive. Megan is in poor condition—prettily, of course. Cinhil feels bad about his mistreatment of her, but he can’t make himself change.

He asks the purpose of this “invasion of gentleness.” They’re here to demand that Megan arm him the way she did for his first battle. He lets himself be persuaded.

Once he’s dressed, gorgeously, he attends Mass. After its over, Megan stays in the chapel with him. She’s all teary. He’s all fatherly. He calls her “little Megan.” He apologizes for being such a terrible husband. She’s all stammery and weepy and forgiving. He decides to let her do something “very special”—give him her blessing.

Which she does, at length. When she’s done and it’s time for him to go, she’s all clingy and kissy. He’s all guilty and full of rationalizations. He feels horribly guilty about wanting her physically.

He puts her out of his mind and braces himself for a different ordeal: riding to war. “It would be a long, long ride.”

And I’m Thinking: As bloody annoying as Cinhil’s treatment of Megan is, not to mention tragically abusive, I have to say it’s solidly medieval. Modern Westerners are not set up to understand a culture in which chastity was a prime virtue and resistance of sexual desire was a requirement for proper moral conduct. Cinhil’s sexual hangups are totally in period. The fact he feels bad about their effect on Megan is a point in his favor. He’s not a bad person, he’s just a very religious man whose entire education and vocation are directly opposed to the circumstances he’s been forced into.

He’s gained a brain cell or two in Chapter 4, too. Rhys’ prevarications don’t completely fool him, and Cinhil gets quite a bit of information out of him.

The women continue to show just-kill-me-now levels of lack of agency. Evaine is downright scary, between her casual dismissal of major magical blowouts and her giggling over dumping a priceless necklace down the privy. That bit of comic relief is painful to read. I think I thought it was funny in the first reading, but now all I can think is, you skipped Evaine’s entire marriage to Rhys, and disappeared the Queen and the princes, but you had time and space for this?

Rhys is starting to wear on me: as a commenter asked earlier, why is he part of all these councils if he has zero understanding of what they’re about?

And Camber, oy. I’m rooting for him to get in bad, bad trouble for the things he’s been doing. He just plows into Ariella’s mind—and gets caught.

Ariella, as I’ve noted before, is badass.

It’s interesting how much character development I filled in when I first read this book. There’s remarkably little personal stuff going on, but pages and pages and pages of elaborate ritual and liturgy, much of it reproduced verbatim from earlier books.

Kurtz does love her liturgies. Loves, loves, loves them. They are beautifully described and lovingly detailed, but all those prayers and all that Latin add up to massive scaffolding around small bits of basically mind tricks.

If there were actual Archangels in the books, if there were any perceptible supernatural beings, the rituals would have some real force. As it is, it’s all smoke and mirrors. Deryni magic at base is mind control, telepathy, and teleportation, with bonus light shows and some telekinesis. Also, intermittent outbreaks of bad poetry.

Ariella’s weather magic is way beyond anything Camber and company have done so far, though Rhys’ healing powers are impressive, if also highly plot-convenient. It’s interesting that those were conclusively lost between Rhys and Morgan, and Morgan (and Warin) bring them back with much less ease and higher physical and psychic costs.

Anyway. Liturgy seems to be a way of controlling powers, making them less easy to use and surrounding them with masses of strictures and moral barriers. Good guys worry about black magic, but then rationalize mind-rape and spying on the principle that if your intentions are good, your magic must be good, too. Very Machiavellian: the end justifies the means.

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. Her short contemporary fantasy novel, Dragons in the Earth, is forthcoming in September. 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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