Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Saint Camber, Chapters 20-21

Welcome to the weekly reread of Saint Camber! Last time, Guaire revealed that he wants to join a new order, one that is dedicated to a new (and not yet canonized) saint—Camber.

This week features a lot of politics, a lot of synopsis, and a series of profound shocks to both Camber and Joram.


Saint Camber: Chapters 20-21

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 20 follows immediately upon the Shocking! Revelation! (which has been telegraphed for chapters and chapters) with Camber blown away by shock! And horror!

Guaire (and this reader) doesn’t see why he’s so shocked. And horrified. It’s been obvious for chapters and chapters. With all the pilgrims and the miracles.

Camber is shocked. Miracles?

Sure enough. The clever little trick Camber played on Guaire by “appearing” to him as an apparition has backfired spectacularly.

Camber’s mental wheels are spinning frantically. He can’t mind-whammy Guaire to make him forget—it’s gone too far and too many people know about it. Not to mention, Guaire has too many Deryni around him. It would blow Camber’s cover.

All he can think of to do is try to reason with Guaire. That works about as well as we might expect. Guaire is all spinny-eyed with religious fervor, and nothing makes a dent. All Camber’s attempt does is convince Guaire to resign from Cullen’s service and go off to help found the Servants of Saint Camber.

Camber tries desperately to talk him out of it, but has no luck. At all.

Guaire takes his leave, and Joram erupts. In synopsis. Historical Narrator is back. Their conversation goes telepathic, with more synopsis: Camber mindtalking as fast as he possibly can, ramping Joram down, and as always, convincing him to give up and do it Camber’s way. It’s just too important to keep Cinhil in line via his dear friend and mentor, Alister Cullen.

None of this is told direct. It’s all summary.

Camber is still spinning wheels over the Saint Camber problem. It just gets more complicated the more he thinks about it. And then Joram points out that there’s Dualta, whom Camber also whammied. Nobody knows where he is.

The synopsis goes on and on and on without breaking out into dialogue, and I confess my eyes glazed over. I skipped ahead to the part where Joram gives in again and does what Daddy tells him, and they go off to Mass with Anscom. Then they fill him in on the situation. And finally, we’re out of synopsis and into an actual scene.

Anscom has some bracing common sense to offer. He won’t let a shrine to Saint Camber be built in his cathedral, and he’ll see what he can do about preventing the petition for sainthood from being presented to the bishops’ council.

Camber is suitably grateful. Anscom is impressed by his appearance of calm. Camber allows as how he’s been plenty panicky, but he’s talked himself around and is all full of himself about how brilliantly he’s mentored Cinhil into brilliant military plans that he and Jeb helped with but it was mostly Cinhil.

That’s our Camber. Cinhil is a brilliant legal mind, too, he says. Why, Camber can hardly keep up!

Good, good, says Anscom. Now how is the family taking all this? he asks Joram. Joram wails a bit, then Anscom points out that there may be no stopping this thing. They’ll have to let not!Camber’s tomb become a shrine, pending the approval of the young earl’s regent, his mother Elinor. She isn’t in on the scam and will make her decision in ignorance of the truth. She won’t have Rhys and Evaine to tell her what to do, either—they’ll be at court thanks to Camber’s machinating and Queen Megan’s new pregnancy.

That’s news to Camber and Joram, but they dismiss it for the moment. There’s still the question of what Elinor will do. She was another Camber groupie. Should they tell her?

Nope nope, says Camber. She’s fixing to marry Jamie Drummond, and Jamie is “a bit of hothead.” Camber is not in favor of Jamie finding out the truth.

So that’s where that sits. And back to the synopsis mines we go. Camber goes to Grecotha, does bishop-ly things. Then back to Valoret, which is in a taking: Earl Sighere is coming, and nobody knows if it’s in war or in peace.

When he actually appears, it’s not clear which he intends. There is a lengthy, step-by-step description of the welcoming ceremony. Sighere is playing it for all he’s worth, but Camber congratulates himself on observing that it’s a show. Sighere is coming to offer alliance.

Sighere gives a speech full of rhetorical flourishes, which boils down to exactly what Camber figured. He swears fealty to Cinhil.

This changes the situation a fair bit. Cinhil consults Jeb, who opines that this is a great way to test the new army, and “Alister,” who puts in a good word for Sighere.

Cinhil then gives a short speech, saying there’s no need for Sighere to swear any oaths. Sighere respectfully begs to differ. He gives another speech, and there’s another ceremony, described in exacting detail. Cinhil formally knights him and confirms him in all his titles. Everybody is thrilled. Cheers and celebrations all around.

Chapter 21 returns us to the Dread Synopsis. Cinhil ends up heading east with Sighere, while Camber as chancellor stays in Valoret and does administrative things. Dread Synopsis gives us an exhaustive summary of political and military arrangements. Everything’s wonderful for Cinhil and company, and Sighere ends up with a promotion. He’s the first duke in Gwynedd, and his duchy is Claiborne.

And so on and on and dryly historically on. Amid the drone, we learn that Megan is blossoming in her pregnancy; she’s not droopy or drippy any longer. She and Evaine are pregnancy buddies, and they’re nesting happily together, with Rhys looking on with his proud male gaze (no female gaze here, nope).

Pregnant Evaine is wonderfully mellow. We know this because all the men notice it. We do not experience it through Evaine. As I said: no female gaze.

And of course it’s all about Camber being magnanimous and letting her gestate and bonding with her. Much father-daughter bonding. (As I pause in reading here, I start to find all these hearts and rainbows ominous. But we’ll see.)

Amid all the synopsis there’s some mention of the Camber cult—nothing resolved there and Camber is in denial again, hands clapped over ears, la la la—and something financially funky is going on with Queron and the Gabrilites. And Anscom is ill, which is not good news.

Camber stays with Anscom and sends Joram and Rhys to check out the Gabrilite oddness. And here it’s frustrating, because they’re disguised as merchants and investigating the purchase of a manor and some very rich, very secret renovations paid for by some shadowy person with gold to spare, and it’s a synopsis.

Then off to Caerrorie to check out Camber’s tomb and it’s another bloody synopsis. Elinor isn’t even there, and they don’t even bother to look at the tomb. They do find some small shrines elsewhere, but it’s all passive voice and summary and off skips the eye in search of a scene.

And all it gets is more synopsis. Anscom dies in Camber’s arms—synopsis. Camber celebrates his funeral mass—synopsis. Anscom’s succession is in question—synopsis. The upshot of that is that the new primate of Gwynedd is a Deryni but he’s not someone Camber can confide in. Camber has to go along with it, since Anscom chose him and there isn’t anyone better who is also ready to take the office.

And on the synopsis goes. Megan has a healthy son named Rhys. Joy. Celebrations. Megan isn’t as droopy as she used to be.

The new archbishop calls a consistory or major meeting of bishops and heads of religious orders. (No women. Not a single woman anywhere in the leadership of Gwynedd’s church. Which by the way is very un-medieval. The Church was constantly playing whack-a-mole with uppity women, causing many to end up in heretical sects, but there were plenty of strong female orders and leaders.)

Camber is very junior here. Joram gets to sit in with him. The summary is long and dry and adds up to very little until finally something happens. A new order is presenting a petition. Queron is part of it. So is Guaire, whom Camber completely! forgot! is very, very rich. He’s the secret backer of the renovations at Dolban. (Camber, as we’ve long since seen, is not nearly as smart as he thinks he is.)

And now there’s an actual scene. Everybody lines up and we get notes on dress and hairstyles, and Queron starts to read the petition for Camber’s sainthood. There’s an uproar, and Joram raises an objection, but Queron starts shouting and Joram has to back down. There’s fuss and bother and procedural backing and forthing, and Camber does his best to ramp down the tension and apologize for Joram. There’s no way they can afford to blow their cover in front of Queron.

The posturing and drama continue, until Camber throttles himself down and Queron goes into full spate with the petition. Camber interjects reactions here and there, mostly observing that Queron is talking about things Cinhil experienced. This is disturbing.

When Queron finally rolls to a close, Joram offers a brief rebuttal. Camber was not a saint and he’d be horrified if he knew, etc. (And of course, he’s right there and he is.)

The new archbishop, Jaffray, hems and haws and frets over Joram’s obvious opposition. Queron has a witness—Jaffray orders Joram, ever so politely, to sit down and shut up during the testimony. That’s Guaire, of course. While Camber mind-whammies Joram into a semblance of calm, Guaire is sworn in, identifies himself at length, and tells, lengthily, the story of the “miracle” after Camber’s supposed death.

It’s nothing we haven’t seen before, but it’s gone over inch by inch and minute by minute. The climax is Queron offering to put on a show of Deryni magic, which Camber suspects Jaffray was in on—he’s a Gabrilite, too, it should be noted. The chapter winds it leisurely way to a sort of casual cliffhanger: Queron setting up for his demonstration, and Jaffray ordering the doors to be barred.


And I’m Thinking: I start to remember why I gave up on Kurtz after this trilogy and The Bishop’s Heir. Holy synopsis, Batman. Kurtz’s true gift is for vivid characterization and breathless adventure. Apparently, in this book, she decided to be Serious and write it like historical tome, only occasionally breaking down and offering actual dramatic scenes. Or else the deadline was tight and the synopsis was detailed and that’s what made it into print. Any Kurtz superfans here, who’d like to weigh in on what happened to the storytelling? Why did Kurtz stop with the story and go all-in with the telling?

Because lordy me, this is dull. Big things happen but they’re buried in summary. The ceremonies are as lengthily and lovingly described as ever, but there’s no fun stuff to balance them. Rhys and Joram play daring duo and get a handful of paragraphs and a fast summary and that’s it.

We will not even talk about the barefoot-and-pregnant demographic. Though I had a thought about this, in connection with another much beloved entry in the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series, Joy Chant’s beautifully and lyrically written Red Moon and Black Mountain. Gorgeous book, but the sexual politics are dire. Among the horse nomads, women are so crushed down and so suppressed that they’re essentially disappeared once they reach puberty. The Elf-analogues have queens and sorceresses, and there’s the truly terrifying earth goddess, but the main message is that women are massively inferior, their lives have minimal meaning, and all that’s important and noble and strong and significant is reserved for the males.

One can see where the feminist revolution came from, but also how thoroughly women writers of the post-World War II world internalized the view of female inferiority and insignificance. Even Evaine with her exceptional intelligence is a handmaiden, and once she’s pregnant, she turns into a puddle of baby drool.

It’s…interesting. More so than all the politics, to my mind. So little of it matters in any strong dramatic sense; it’s gone into in such loving detail, but there’s no blood in it. No breath or life. It feels like padding to stretch out the story into a trilogy: let us see all the worldbuilding and the historical notes and the background material, while we wait (and wait and wait) for the Camber cult to get going and the Deryni persecutions to start.

Per a comment last week: this apparently works for some readers. It doesn’t for me. There are so many potentially dramatic scenes here, so much character development that could have happened, and in their place we get thousands of words of marginally relevant politics and excruciatingly detailed rituals and ceremonies. Where are Rhys and Joram playing roving investigators? Evaine and Megan sharing experiences and building friendship? Camber dealing with the challenges of being Alister? Guaire finding his vocation and hooking up with Queron and building a new order? These are all things Kurtz could have written with verve and flair. But instead we got what we got. Synopsis.

A scene, a scene. My kingdom for a fully dramatized, vividly characterized, active and exciting scene. And No More Synopsis!

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 new short novel, Dragons in the Earth, a contemporary fantasy set in Arizona, has just been published by Book View Cafe. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies and space operas, some of which have been published 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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