Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber the Heretic, Chapters 4-5

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber the Heretic!

Last time, the humans finally began making their move against the Deryni, plotting to control the regency after the ailing king dies. This week Camber gets up close and personal with the human-Deryni conflict. Cinhil makes a momentous and most likely fatal decision. And Rhys shows his ruthless side.


Camber the Heretic: Chapters 4-5

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 4 opens with Camber making a much more belated departure from Ebor than he wants, then awing his escort with his super-stamina for “such an old man.” If they only knew! he thinks, smugly.

The sergeant of the guard suggests a shortcut by way of Dolban. And that gives us an infodump about how Camber and Joram emphatically do not want to go to Queron’s first shrine to Saint Camber. Camber wanders off into a reverie about the backstory.

Suddenly a raucous pack of riders gallops lengthily up and starts talking trash. They’re Deryni, and they’re over-the-top arrogant about it.

Camber backs them sharply down with a display of his own Deryni magic, then treats them to a stern lecture about proper manners and deportment under the King’s Peace.

They’re anti-human bigots and they don’t care who knows it. They demand to know who Camber is. They’re feeding right into anti-Deryni propaganda, Camber shoots back, with bonus name-check of the dreadful Murdoch.

The confrontation gets physical. Suddenly! Camber’s cloak falls back! And they realize he’s the Chancellor!

That takes care of the bullies, who depart at speed for Ebor. Camber’s sergeant is all set to teach them a physical lesson, but Camber, still in lecture mode, reels him in, with Joram as backup.

And that is a perfect excuse to bypass Dolban and get back to Cinhil right away. Unfortunately, Queron, now the Abbot of Dolban, is the main royal authority in these parts, and he has to be notified of the incident.

On the way to Dolban, they find out what the riders have been up to. They’ve attacked a human lord’s escort and left his lady weeping blondely in the mud. The humans are in no way pleased to be met by another group of Deryni, even if one is the royal chancellor.

They aren’t at all sympathetic to Camber’s attempt to calm them down by telling them he’s headed to Dolban to inform the Abbot of the riders’ depredations. The Abbot is a Deryni, too. They’re hating on all Deryni—though Camber keeps trying to convince them Not All Deryni etc.

Then he starts trying to question the lady, who is off her head and weeping hysterically. (Because Kurtzian women aaarrrghhh.) The cleric who is pat-patting and there-there-ing her explains in roundabout terms that she was roughed up but not raped. It was “only sport.”

The lady’s husband takes severe umbrage at this (as well he should), while Camber keeps trying to smooth him down. He leaves some of his escort and horses, and promises to send more men and horses back for them all (since their horses were run off). Then he rides on to Dolban.

Camber is not comfortable in the abbey dedicated to his fictitiously sanctified self. Queron comes to welcome the guests, and as usual with characters we’ve met before, he’s hardly aged at all since the last book (though unlike the Camber family, he’s visibly greyer). Camber ascertains that he’s responsible for the roads in the day but no one is at night, and fills him in on what’s happened. It’s a bit of an Incident, since the indignant lord is a bishop’s brother.

Queron arranges to deal with the situation, with undercurrents that indicate Queron isn’t entirely sure on which side “Cullen”’s sympathies lie in the human-Deryni conflict. He invites the guests—singling out Joram—to pay respects at the shrine: further undercurrents there, much closer to the surface, and more explicit.

Camber is backed into a corner and knows it. He asks if he and Joram can worship in private. Queron grants the wish, with much sympathy for “poor Joram,” it must be so hard to be a saint’s son.

You have no idea, says Joram.

Camber steps in before they come to blows, literally channeling Cullen to get the job done, and whisks Joram away into the church.

Then we get an extended description, rather technical, of a not excessively overdecorated shrine with a large and prominent statue of the supposed saint. Camber has some soul-searching to do about the long con he’s been running, with much rationalization and self-justification. Mostly he squeezes his eyes shut and refuses to think about it, but that’s not an option here.

It’s a dilemma. So is the question of how a nonexistent saint can be working miracles.

Then Camber chews over how Joram must feel about all this, until he steps into Joram’s mind (Joram is fine with that) and discovers that Joram is perfectly all right. He’s accepted the inevitable. He’s all in with the cause.

It’s another father-son bonding moment, and another chance for Camber to feel good about himself. Better yet, even the statue doesn’t bother him any more. It’s all good, he thinks, as he and Joram exit arm in arm.

Chapter 5 finds Camber quite pleased with himself and his place in the world as he leaves Dolban and goes back to Valoret. Cinhil is waiting, and he’s anxious. Camber fills him in on what’s happened.

Cinhil is incensed. The human-Deryni conflict has been getting worse. The worst yet, the previous year, was the destruction of the Deryni town of Nyford by rioting humans: there’s a lengthy infodump with all the details (and lots of passive voice). Short form: It was bad. The town was completely destroyed.

Camber tries, rather mildly, to excuse the bullies on the road. They’re just reacting to the fact that “they seem to have no function in a non-Deryni regime.”

Which is not true, and Cinhil is testy about it. He then gets all verklempt about the future and his sons, which Joram takes as his cue to find somewhere else to be.

But Cinhil wants to talk to them both. He takes his time coming around to it. He has, after fourteen years, finally come to appreciate what Camber (when he was still officially alive) did for Gwynedd in making Cinhil king. He’s half apologizing, half thanking Joram, and in the process, mentions that Gwynedd’s enemies have not prospered.

Camber is not sure about that at all. Cinhil picks this up, though he never tries to reach for Camber’s mind.

They reach a detente of sorts. Now Cinhil comes, in stammery fashion, to the point. He wants his sons to have powers, too. He’s hardly used his, but they are useful for ruling effectively.

This is huge. Joram wants to be sure Cinhil understands what he’s asking—and what he’ll have to do to make it happen. Then Joram points out that the original spell needed the whole Camber family—and asks if “Alister” can take Camber’s place this time.

Cinhil speaks to Camber as Alister, as the old friend who guarded the door. Camber lets him go on for a while, then allows as how he can do it if he has to. Cinhil continues to play on love and friendship, and actually brings Camber to tears.

Then Cinhil and Joram work out logistics. They’ll perform the ritual omorrow night in the king’s private chapel. Rhys and Evaine will be back. Joram asks to involve Jebediah as guard. Cinhil is good with that.

Joram goes to set things in motion. Cinhil stays to pray with “Alister,” who (we’re told) is ever so much more than Cinhil can possibly comprehend. Because Camber. And superpowers. Already plotting how to get the Haldane powers installed in the bloodline—taking the long view.

While king and bishop pray, Joram and Jeb get to work with the setup—including the possibility that Cinhil won’t survive the ritual. There’s real danger that once Cinhil is dead, the human regents will get rid of the Deryni, including Jebediah. The military implications are dire.

The next day brings a terrible ice storm, which keeps Rhys and Evaine in Ebor. (Hello? Transfer Portal? Anyone? Bueller?)

They do make it to Valoret, however, with great difficulty and no little damage to the horses. Joram meets them with a quick cover story, and takes them to Camber, who has a roaring fire and that classic fantasy staple: stew.

While they thaw out and eat, Camber fills them in. Rhys wants to know how Cinhil is. Resigned, says Camber. “Past fear.”

Evaine is terrified about the future. But then she picks herself up (with Rhys’ support) and gets practical. She asks about the details of the ritual. Camber and Joram answer. Cinhil wants to be in charge.

Of course they’ll only let him think he is. They continue with the planning. Rhys will be in charge of the royal children. Tavis has to be dealt with—drugs, of course, along with the other servants, pending Cinhil’s approval.

Rhys and Cinhil get together for some bonding time. Rhys works on Cinhil, but confirms that the king’s lungs are nearly done. Cinhil will not let him administer a sleep spell. He’ll sleep when he’s dead.

Then Rhys checks in with him regarding the sleeping potion for the children. Cinhil insists on knowing what’s in it. It’s harmless, Rhys assures him, and will help with the magic. Cinhil asks for, and gets, details. And agrees that Tavis needs to be drugged and mindwiped.

As Rhys starts to leave, Cinhil states that “It will be my last sunset.” Overcome with emotion, Rhys makes his way to the nursery, where he takes in, at length, the different personalities and activities of the princes and their servants.

They all greet him adorably, and Rhys tricks them into taking his “physick.” It takes a while and some bribery, and some Fianna wine. While waiting for the wine, Rhys addresses the issue of all the help Tavis is giving Javan to get through his days. What will happen when Tavis isn’t there?

He lectures Tavis on who these children are and what they’re meant to do. Alroy is not strong. Javan is next in line after him for the throne. He has to be strong enough to step up if Alroy dies.

Tavis is fiercely protective. Rhys continues to lecture him about stifling the boy. Tavis shuts him out and buries his nose in a book. Rhys, stymied, eventually wanders off.

Once the wine comes, Rhys puts on a show of administering “the grand physick against colds,” in the very fancy wine. Javan is reluctant and looks to Tavis for approval before he drinks. This, Rhys thinks, is not good on a number of levels.

Everybody has drunk, as far as Rhys knows, though Tavis’ actions seem a little suspicious. Soon enough the squires are out, but Tavis is not.

He confronts Rhys. He lied. This isn’t a cold medicine. It’s a whole lot more.

Rhys works hard to convince Tavis it’s all harmless, it’s the king’s command, he wants the boys to sleep well. While he talks, he stalks Tavis, gut-punches him, and forces the drug into him. With what is more or less an apology if you really squint.

Tavis is fighting the drug hard, and raving at Rhys. He gave them merasha, which readers of the Morgan trilogy will remember all too well, and another drug that’s equally awful for Deryni. Rhys counters that he’s doing it at the king’s command, and hits him with the amnesia spell.

It’s mind-rape, and it does the job. Rhys tucks Tavis in, meticulously cleans up after himself and substitutes a cup with the dregs of a sleeping potion instead of the witches’ brew he actually fed the children, and opens a secret panel to reveal the very “bored-looking” Joram, who has been waiting for rather longer than he liked.

Tavis was a problem, Rhys informs him, but they’re good to go now. Twins first. And then the chapter ends.

And I’m Thinking: The slam-bang action continues, the infodumps are minimal compared to the last book, and events are galloping along. There’s one dreadful cliche of a female character, but Evaine counteracts her with brisk practicality.

Things are starting to escalate on the race-war front. Humans have been stepping up their attacks on Deryni, and the Deryni, in their arrogance, are doing their best to make matters worse.

It’s nice that Camber and Joram have some more bonding time, and that Joram can finally cope, more or less, with his father’s completely bogus sainthood. Cinhil has some affecting scenes, and it’s clear he won’t be alive much longer. He’s decided, in true Cinhil fashion, to die a martyr to the cause of Haldane magic.

As for Deryni magic, it continues to be ruthlessly coercive regardless of who practices it. Rhys mind-rapes Tavis with hardly a qualm. The king commands, the cause requires it, sorry, mate, just forget all about it now.

I have a bad feeling about that.

And what’s with the transportation problem between Ebor and Valoret? It’s as if Kurtz completely forgot about Transfer Portals. You really would think Ebor would have a few, since it’s ruled by a powerful Deryni lord, and Valoret certainly has them. But everybody is trekking back and forth on horseback, no matter how awful the weather or how dangerous for the horses.

So, um, plothole? It doesn’t even serve a purpose; the delays don’t cause any serious plot problems, and everybody gets where they need to be, when they’re needed.

Which in these chapters means we’re about to get a big honking magical set piece, and probably a royal sacrifice. I’m in for the ride, for sure. This is vintage Kurtz, i.e., headlong page-turner.

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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