Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber the Heretic, Chapters 6-7

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber the Heretic!

Last time, Cinhil saw his last sunset, while Tavis got drugged and mindwiped. This week, Camber and company oversee a royal sacrifice and work the highest of high magics. And Camber gets a glimpse of what lies beyond the veil.


Camber the Heretic: Chapters 6-7

Here’s What Happens: As Chapter 6 begins, Cinhil is fretting and watching Joram and Evaine prepare his chapel for the Haldane power ritual. The Camber family, “Alister,” and Jebediah have all said their last goodbyes.

Cinhil pauses to reflect on why Jebediah thinks the regents will dismiss him after Cinhil dies. Cinhil is convinced that won’t happen. From there he segues to the probability of his own death. He’s at peace with it. At length. He’s even celebrated his last surreptitious Mass. Cinhil turns back to a detailed examination of the redecorated chapel. Then Jebediah passes him, in full armor with the royal sword of state.

Jebediah hands the sword to Alister, who with Evaine continues to set up the ritual. When Jebediah leaves, that’s the last time Cinhil will see him in this life.

Rhys and Joram arrive through a secret passageway with Alroy and Javan. First part of the ritual is the ear-piercing (which we remember from Kelson’s own ritual). Alroy gets the Eye of Rom, which has a heavenly provenance. Javan gets a twisted-wire placeholder for the earring if he turns out to need it later. Then Joram reappears with young Rhys Michael. Cinhil frets a little about “Alister.” “Will he be all right?” Joram assures him that Alister (who of course is really Camber) will be just fine. “Do not underestimate him.”

Cinhil summons Alister, who asks him, “Are you content?” Cinhil allows as how he is.

The ritual itself begins with the lengthy and detailed setting of the wards. Kurtz does love her some setting of wards. Cinhil’s part is to take up the sword of state to finish binding the circle. Here we see how the Haldane magic works: he just does and says what comes to him, without training or preparation.

Evaine seals the magic he’s made. Then Joram picks up with a classic Kurtzian magical liturgy, raising the element of Air (a nice bit of Pythagorean elements added to the mix), complete with pocket whirlwind.

Cinhil is, to everyone’s surprise, controlling the imagery of the ritual. Joram then invokes Fire, passing on to Evaine, who calls on Water—with tiny thunderstorm. Finally Alister invokes Earth, and the cup of the rite is ready. Cinhil gives the cup and the magic to Alroy in a really rather brutal mind-rape, which he kindly erases from his son’s mind “unless there is need,” and so that Alray can do the same to his son when the time comes. Cinhil hands the unconscious child over to Rhys, then moves on to Javan, with pause for severe coughing fit and general worry. He needs Rhys, he says, to help. Rhys understands, and promises to give him strength to finish.

Chapter break. Chapter 7 moves right along, with Rhys mind-melding with Cinhil. Rhys has to deal with the fact he’s helping Cinhil kill himself. He can get Cinhil through Javan’s “imprinting,” but little Rhys Michael will be the end of him.

Cinhil is pleased with the results of this first Healing. This time we see the imprinting through Rhys’ eyes, at a remove, since he’s outside the circle. He finds it “a little unnerving.” He keeps on watching, through a glass darkly as it were, while Javan is imprinted. Javan can assume the powers by putting on Cinhil’s ring. It’s another mind-rape and instilling of compulsion followed by mindwipe.

Cinhil is nearly done after this. Rhys dives to his aid. Cinhil isn’t going to make it out of round three, we all know.

The viewpoint shifts again, to Camber. He watches Rhys do what he can, until Cinhil, “oddly peaceful,” rises for the third go. Camber, as ever, has a plan—he palms a dagger while everyone is moving into place. (The dagger doesn’t show up again in these chapters. Hm.) Cinhil is fully at peace with his choices. Rhys Michael, unlike the twins, is not apprehensive. He’s trusting and resolute. This tells Camber who is really meant to rule.

Camber has a rare vision of the future: Rhys Michael, aged 15 or 16, taking the throne with a familiar-looking blonde girl. That’s old enough to rule without regents. And it tells Camber the twins won’t live long. This future is only a handful of years away. And it’s worrisome. It means probable chaos in the intervening years. Rhys, unlike his brothers, seems to actively participate in his power ritual. When it’s done, there are literally sparks flying between father and son.

The Deryni recoil from the intensity (or sloppiness, but we know which it is, don’t we?) of the exchange. When it’s done, Joram scoops up young Rhys, and Cinhil calls for Alister. But Alister/Camber has a circle to guard, a gate to open so young Rhys can be carried out and older Rhys can rush to Cinhil.

Camber orders Joram to fetch the materials for the last rites, and delegates Evaine to look after the children. Rhys is doing what he can for Cinhil, but it’s not much. Once everything and everybody is in place, Camber takes over from Rhys. He sends Rhys out of the circle but keeps Joram with him. This is priest time, he says.

Cinhil has a little breath left for some touching last words of thanks and friendship. He also, extremely belatedly, worries that he misjudged Murdoch and the regents. Camber makes there-there and too-late-to-worry-now noises.

Cinhil is starting to slip away. Camber, who knows more than most about what dying feels like, having lived through Alister’s death, gives him support. Then Cinhil wants “Alister” to see what he’s seeing—which he says is the most marvelous thing. He won’t let Alister go too far, he says. Just come a little ways and see. For Camber the threshold of death is auditory, with bonus out-of-body experience. At that point Cinhil finally discovers the truth about Camber/Alister, and Camber gives him the whole story. His reaction is “beatific acceptance” and a brotherly embrace. They walk out of their bodies and find that the magical circle is a barrier Cinhil can’t pass without Camber’s help.

Then Camber is back in his body, telling Joram, who stands guard, to open a gate and “kneel down in homage to the one who passes.” Joram, confused but obedient, opens a gate with the sword, and Camber with his magical Sight watches Cinhil pass into the light. His queen meets him there, along with his two lost sons.

Then the Archangels come and shatter the circle, and nearly shatter Camber. They escort Cinhil out of Camber’s knowing.

And I’m Thinking: Whoa. Those are some serious theological heavy hitters, who also happen to be the Powers every Deryni invokes every time he makes a magical circle. Camber for once in his life is completely out of his depth, and Cinhil for once, in his death, is finally happy, and finally in a place where he belongs.

This is vintage Kurtz. Deep Christian esoterica, and elaborate, lovingly described, heavily liturgical ritual. With bonus royal sacrifice, and heavy-duty redemption of a troubled and problematical character.

It’s as grimdark as they make them, and it’s grandly epic in scale and scope. The grimdark is kind of inevitable since this whole trilogy is based on a history that ends in persecution and genocide. We get a ray of hope in the way Rhys Michael embraces his Haldane heritage, but it’s obvious that Alroy and Javan will have short, miserable reigns. And karma is coming for Camber in a big way.

So now Cinhil is gone, and the Camber family’s focus has to shift to his heirs—and we know there’s big trouble coming, as Murdoch and company seize the regency and turn against the Deryni.

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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