Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber the Heretic, Chapters 10-11

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber the Heretic!

Last time, the human regents made their move, and the Deryni scrambled to deal with it. This week Rhys and friends conduct a medical experiment, Camber and company concoct an elaborate religious scam—over Joram’s strong objections—and Camber and Rhys attend a vital meeting in a setting familiar to readers of the Morgan and Kelson books.


Camber the Heretic: Chapters 10-11

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 10 begins with yet another meeting: the Camber family and Jebediah. They’re trying the experiment with Rhys’ power-suppression spell, using Jeb as a subject. There’s some detailed magic-working, and hey presto! It works!

Rhys is all set to flip the switch back on, but Jebediah wants to get used to the feeling. Just in case. He’s quite horrified. “Mother of God, is that what it is to be human?”

Everybody checks him out, and yep, he’s completely in the Off position. Rhys proceeds to test various drugs including merasha (with infodump on its uses and effects). Jeb drinks a good slug of it in wine, after a placebo dose, and doesn’t feel a thing.

Everybody checks him again. He really isn’t reacting.

…until Rhys turns his powers back on, with a warning: “I think it’s going to hit you like a catapult.”

And that it surely does. Rhys treats the damage, including redoing the block to ease things along. This is the dose humans are using in the prisons, Rhys says. Jeb is seriously shaky but the experiment is pronounced a success. The on-off switch really works.

Jeb is half-carried off to bed. Camber and Evaine exchange eye communications. Evaine is going to volunteer next, Camber knows. She’s all brave and quivery-chinned.

This time Rhys discovers that the trigger point is completely separate from mental shields and he can aim right at it. Joram and Camber piggyback on him, can observe but can’t find the point themselves. It’s a Healer thing. Camber is jealous.

Evaine, powerless, is all upset. She can’t connect with Rhys any more. Rhys is upset, too. He flips her back on with a hard kiss, then she drinks the merasha. There’s much agita, and much fussing, and then Rhys turns her powers off. Instant painlessness. She doesn’t have to feel the agony when her powers turn back on—she gets a sleeping draft first.

Rhys is getting tired, but it’s just normal Healing tired. Joram is awed and scared.

Camber is next. The question there is what the shape-change will do. As it happens, nothing. And Camber gets to feel what it’s like to be human. He doesn’t like it.

So that’s a success. Rhys still has other drugs to test, and makes plans to do so, but for tonight they’re done.

A quick synopsis follows, with everybody in the know getting a round of experimentation. Meanwhile, also in synopsis with moralizing and analysis, Cinhil’s funeral gets a fast summing-up. The people never really loved him, but they’re grateful to him.

It’s a cold, cursory passage, and sad in its way. Nobody ever really understood him, let alone liked him. The narrator (whom we have Not missed since the last book) moves dryly on to opine about the princes, and to note that Javan’s being Not Mentioned, with accompanying rumors.

Finally the narrator moves on to describe the funeral, with snapshots of the princes—Rhys Michael is all bright and cheery and full of charisma—and moves on to the regents’ decision to move the body to Rhemuth where the rest of the Haldanes are buried. That’s a smart political move, says the narrator.

In between funeral and Rhemuth, the regents get to work removing Deryni from the household and tightening control over the princes. Alroy is separated from his brothers for his own personal indoctrination program.

Tavis gets to stay because Javan melts down if he leaves. Meanwhile Camber and the rest of the Deryni bide their time, do their jobs, and in Camber’s case, worry about how to keep a foothold with the princes.

Gregory and Jesse have managed to capture the rogue Deryni in Ebor, with casualties: the humans attack the prison in a mob. And so on. And so forth.

Finally the narrator shuts up, after going on about Camber’s reflections on Rhys’ power switch.

He debates the ethics of using it with the Camberian Council: yet another meeting. He wants to frame the off switch with religion, and the Council isn’t at all sure about that, or about the switch itself. The big worry is whether other Healers can learn to manipulate the switch, and if so, whether Deryni should do it. And will their children be Deryni?

And that circles back around (via some mansplaining and patronizing of Evaine, who to be fair is acting like a drip) to the roving Deryni bands and the human problem and the fact it’s all very, very serious. Camber argues that shutting off powers is the best option to protect Deryni, and the coronation is the deadline for deciding what to do.

That sets Rhys off on how it’s all in his hands (literally; he’s got very nicely kept nails) and that’s a very big deal. Then he takes charge of the meeting, has a brief spat with Gregory that resolves into “Damn it, Rhys, I’m just a gruff old soldier,” and then reels off into a “progress report” on the experiments. Bottom line is that the switch works, Deryni drugs don’t affect switched-off Deryni, the logistics of shutting them off will be complicated, and it seems to be a Healer thing. So they have to decide which of the Healers to trust.

One of the names brought up is Queron. Joram takes a lengthy moment to flash back to the Saint Camber episode, which included a very dicey sequence in which Camber had to hide his real identity from Queron, and Joram was caught painfully in the middle.

Now Jaffray wants to include him, and he doesn’t know about Camber. This means Camber and Joram have to do some rapid tapdancing, while Jaffray and Rhys discuss Queron’s considerable Healing gifts. Eventually Jaffray organizes Rhys and “Alister” into contacting Queron and the very elderly but very talented Emrys to find out if they can be drawn into the plan.

Camber thoroughly appreciates the irony of being sent to examine Queron, but doesn’t make any effort to refuse. Lack of confidence, as I’ve noted before, is not Camber’s weakness.

Then Evaine takes over. The plan is to play the swithching process as a religious ritual: dying as Deryni and being reborn as human. None of them is terribly happy with the morality or theology of it, but Deryni never let scruples stop them from doing what they’ve decided to do.

For this they need a human “front man.” With some teasing and some more heavy-handed patronizing from Jaffray, Evaine proposes Revan, a boy she rescued during Imre’s persecutions, who is her (very offstage, very seldom mentioned) younger children’s tutor. He’ll go undercover with the Willimite anti-Deryni cultists, play “messiah” and “cure” Deryni of their evil powers.

The discussion degenerates into a nasty sibling quarrel: Joram as usual is not in favor of religious flim-flammery. Camber has to pull paternal rank—a bit tricky considering not everyone there knows he’s really their father—to get them to settle down.

The discussion gets back on track, but Camber worries about Joram’s hostility. Later, he thinks. Meanwhile it’s decided that Rhys has “defect” to Revan’s cult and pretend to forsake his powers—with Joram still sniping, and being shut down this time by Jaffray.

In the end, Rhys and Evaine will approach Revan, then Rhys and “Alister” will talk with Queron and Emrys. Rhys is going to be very busy over the next few weeks.

Chapter 11 opens with Rhys and Evaine riding to their manor at Sheele to visit the children. Daughter and much younger son play ponies with dad while Evaine pulls Revan aside for a conference.

Here for the first time we meet the younger two, Rhysel and Tieg. The eldest, Aidan, we’re told in extensive detail, is off in fosterage with his cousin Adrian MacLean (ancestor of Duncan, I’m sure, though the surname changes spelling over the centuries).

Evaine starts off by asking the tutor for a report on the children’s education, then, uncomfortably, asks him if he likes his work. Then she finally starts circling around toward her point. As she does, she realizes Tevan is (platonically)(really) in love with Rhys. (Why she hasn’t seen this before, I don’t know. She’s only known him for years.)

She tells him about the off switch for Deryni powers, including a detailed lecture on the current political and racial situation. Revan is all wide-eyed attention, though he keeps asking questions. Evaine is “pleased and heartsick” that he understands the situation. (Because humans, to “good” Deryni, are clever pets.) She starts drilling in with all the ramifications of magicless Deryni who can’t remember they’re Deryni, and how that will save them all from the terrible humans.

(Here we get some justification for why more magic isn’t the answer. Deryni powers are slow and cumbersome versus physical weapons.)

Finally Evaine gets to the point, with a brief detour to what will happen with the children—the Michaelines will take them in. She wants Revan to become a Willimite prophet who appears to be removing evil Deryni powers (but is actually fronting for a Healer who is doing the actual removal), and she works her way through his incredulity to tell him how he’s going to do it.

He’s all in. She mind-whammies him to make sure he doesn’t remember unless he’s with her or Rhys. And that’s taken care of.

Scene shift. Smug Evaine rides back to Valoret with Rhys. Meanwhile Revan suddenly falls in love with a girl who becomes suddenly sick and dies, though Rhys tries hard to save her. And that snaps Revan’s mind, and he turns against Rhys and the rest of the Deryni. Then he makes a dramatic exit.

The plot continues to unfold, complete with rumors that Rhys really wanted the girl for himself (evil Deryni, you know). Revan embeds himself with the Willimites and gets going on his messiah act.

Droning Narrator is back and we’re deep in synopsis again, and my eyes are glazing over. Blah blah Portal infodump (big ecclesiastical network, very convenient, Rhys and Camber can meet with Emrys and Rhys at St. Neot’s very eventually after Jaffray does the preliminary legwork, and yes, that’s the kind of tone and diction we’re dealing with here) blah blah Jaffray meets Emrys blah blah Emrys makes contact with Queron blah blah passive voice complicated logistics weeks of delay blah blah.

Finally! A scene! Queron is all scowly about why Alister has to be involved in Healer business. Emrys doesn’t know what’s going down, either, but he’s an obliging soul. He’s good with meeting Alister and Rhys at the appointed place and time.

Come the day, Camber and Rhys in Grecotha make the long climb up to Queen Sinead’s Watch. There’s a movable Portal there, which makes Rhys twitchy. Camber teases him about control-freak Healers. Rhys isn’t terribly amused.

He’s also worried about Camber not being a Healer and the risk he’s running of being discovered. Camber says he knows, but Rhys needs backup. Confident even when he’s nervous, that’s Camber.

They Portal to St. Neot’s, where Emrys and Queron are waiting. It’s tense. They adjourn to a warded room, but not before Emrys gives “Bishop Cullen” a tour of the abbey. Rhys objects, time is short, but Emrys is firm. Everybody needs to Calm Down.

While this is happening, Camber notices that Queron is nervous, too. This reassures Camber. He launches into a breezy speech about wanting to see some Healer training. Emrys totally agrees. He’s in full-on teacher mode, and both of the other Healers are suitably chastened.

They start off on their tour, and the chapter ends.


And I’m Thinking: Even a little Droning Narrator is too much, but at least we get plenty of actual action and real people talking. We finally get to meet some of Rhys and Evaine’s offspring. And the plot gets very thick and chewy.

Evaine is a real mover and shaker here, and is clearly not a hands-on mother. She gets infantilized and patronized but she’s also in charge of a significant segment of the great Deryni-rebirth scam. This is as good as Kurtzian females get. Still severely lacking, but at the time, women readers ate it up. Seeing a functional woman at all in a fantasy novel was exciting.

As for the scam, the Deryni continue to be world-class users and manipulators. Humans continue to be treated like domestic animals. Revan at least has some volition, but the girl he pretends to fall in love with gets no more attention or compassion than a chicken for the pot.

Obviously it’s Rhys who somehow makes her sick, or poisons her. She’s murdered for the sake of Revan’s cover story. And nobody, least of all Droning Narrator, even blinks.

I’ve long since lost any sympathy for Deryni. They’re all monsters in their various ways, some more underhanded than others. I’m not terribly convinced by Camber’s big “must strip them all of powers” push, either. Why not evacuate them to other, Deryni-run countries?

Oh, I know. Later books needed these plot points, and this is the book that fills them in. Still. Some of it doesn’t suspend my disbelief so much as drop it over the ledge.

It certainly is a big and complicated plot, and everybody is taking it very, very seriously. Poor Cinhil rather gets lost in the skulduggery; Droning Narrator zips through his funeral and we’re off on the let’s-kill-Deryni-powers angle again.

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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