Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber the Heretic, Chapters 16-17

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber the Heretic!

Last week, Tavis lost his hand for fraternizing with the “enemy,” while the Camber family struggled to do damage control. This week the Camberian Council embeds a mole in the royal court, the political situation keeps on deteriorating, and Javan and Tavis inch closer to a dangerous revelation.


Camber the Heretic: Chapters 16-17

Here’s What Happens: After some deeply ominous rumblings from the royal princes, especially Javan, Chapter 16 opens with another meeting of the Camberian Council. The agenda: Tavis. Emrys and Queron are there, with the young relations who have been hunting rogue Deryni throughout the book.

Tavis is A Problem. Rhys is up for some handy mind-rape, if he can find a way to make it happen. There’s a new wrinkle, too: the princes have convinced the regents to hunt down the rogue Deryni. Jaffray has a report on the day’s regency council meeting, which concluded that the attack on Tavis was really about the princes.

They need a spy in the royal guard: a blocked Deryni, to keep Tavis from catching on. Davin (who not at all incidentally is the Earl of Culdi) volunteers—and proposes the shape-shifting spell to conceal his identity. He has it all planned out.

Joram as usual is flat against it. So is Camber. Evaine is for it. Rhys isn’t, but can’t come up with a convincing argument. Evaine pushes till she gets a majority in favor, including Camber. Joram is the only Nay vote.

The meeting ends with further planning. Then, the scene shifts: it’s two weeks later and Davin is prepped and trained and ready to go.

The Council meets again in a very very secret chamber with a name of its own: a keeill. The only way in is by Portal. We get a lengthy historical disquisition, a detailed explanation of how the Council found it (Evaine reads a lot of ancient manuscripts in her apparently abundant free time), and a further detailed description of the actual space.

The Council gathers. Joram is still firmly opposed. More deception, he says. Always with the deception.

Also, the human whose face Davin will take hasn’t consented. The other times they’ve worked this spell, it’s been consensual (and Alister was dead, so consent wasn’t an issue). And it was done on the fly, for expedience. This is premeditated. Joram doesn’t like that. At all.

Camber and Jebediah gang up on him. The human will be all right, of course he will, and if he’s not, he’ll be all right anyway. It’s all very convoluted.

Finally Camber pulls the Daddy Card. “That’s the way it has to be.”

Joram shuts up.

The ritual begins with wards, as we’ve seen many times before. Davin swaps outfits, in further detail. Evaine gets to work on the shape-changing spell, which we see through Davin’s eyes.

Then comes the difficult part: the block. It will shut off his memory as well as his powers. He’ll be a true mole, so deep cover he doesn’t even know he’s undercover.

Several pages later, it’s all done, and “Eidiard” the guard heads off to his new post, while Eidiard the actual is spirited away by waiting Michaelines. The Council work out logistics—someone has to monitor the mole constantly—and Camber ends up with the first watch.

This gives him time to chew over the whole long con he and his family have been running. He almost forgets to monitor Davin, till he catches himself. Davin is cruising along, oblivious to who he really is. And Camber rather desultorily keeps track, until the chapter ends.

Chapter 17 subjects us once again to Droning Narrator, who details a summer of escalating anti-Deryni propaganda, fueled by “a mild but debilitating plague” that is, of course, blamed on the Deryni. Meanwhile the Haldanes move to Rhemuth (which fans of Kelson have been waiting for for many hundreds of pages—this will be Kelson’s capital), with considerable detail about the newly renovated facilities and the arrangements of the court.

Amid all the drone and the passive voice, we learn that Ewan and Rhun have deployed the army for unknown purposes. But Droning Narrator, and Dozing Reader, and too few Deryni, can guess. Most Deryni are coasting along in a state of denial.

(Hmm, feels a little too topical right here and now.)

Droning Narrator drones on. And on. Alroy and his brothers are in good physical shape, but have been systematically eased out of any participation in the government they are nominally in charge of. Alroy especially is quite thoroughly indoctrinated in the fact of his own weakness, helped along by “subtle medication prescribed by an obedient royal physician.” (It’s not just Deryni who play that game here.)

Javan however is not taken in. He concentrates on pulling Tavis out of depression and getting him to Heal again. Unfortunately Tavis’ disability continues to be a problem; people don’t want him touching them, and Bishop Hubert finds his empty sleeve “unaesthetic.” (How very, very ableist these people are.)

Meanwhile Davin/Eidiard joins the household, blah blah passivevoice drone blah. His handlers make sure he’s leery of Healers, so he avoids Tavis.

Then he gets kicked while working a colt, and Tavis, Healing him, doesn’t suspect a thing.

Droning Narrator moves on to Tavis, who has been examining captured Deryni for signs of the plot against the princes (which we know is a lie). He’s not interested in them if they weren’t involved in the plot, which makes him an unsatisfactory tool for the ineffably horrid Bishop Hubert blah blah passivevoicedronedronedrone.

Then Tavis finds one of the attackers, a Deryni named Dafydd, who commits suicide-by-magic before he betrays any of the others. Tavis refuses to Death-Read him. Blah blah passivevoicedrooooooone.

This however occasions (after more drone) an actual non-passive, non-synopsized scene. Tavis ponders the issue of Javan’s shields. Javan has been doing the same thing; he confronts Tavis while going over the royal budget (we would yawn, but after pages and pages and pages of drone, this is an actual improvement). He’s direct, and he won’t be evaded.

They discuss, at length, what happened the night Tavis lost his hand, and compare notes. Tavis explains what Javan did to help him heal. Javan wonders how, since he’s human, that could be possible.

Tavis proposes that they go into “rapport” (a favorite Kurtzian word) to get to the bottom of it all. Then of course, we get the details of the process. And a recap, verbatim, of the relevant events.

Back when this book was written, that meant either retyping or literally cutting out pieces of paper and pasting them in. It wasn’t nearly as easy as it is with computers. So deciding to recap multiple pages of scenes already written took a little bit of effort.

Anyway. Long recap, in case we didn’t feel like paging back to the original scene. With breaks for speculation as to what it all means, and why it’s happening, and what was Rhys up to with those “Deryni drugs”?

They still can’t penetrate the magical barriers to find out what Rhys and company are hiding. Javan remembers bits and pieces. He presses Tavis to hypnotize him and find out more. But Tavis can’t get through what seems to be a dream or hallucination.

There’s only one thing to do. Try the drugs and see what happens. That will take time and research. Meanwhile, Javan is tired and Tavis is hungry. And the chapter ends on a conscientiously light, mundane note.


And I’m Thinking: When Kurtz wants to, she can write slam-bang action as good as anything out there. Her best books are breathless page-turners.

In these chapters, she did not want to. We get a nice little spy drama with bonus magic—the old standby, the shape-shifting spell, combines with Rhys’ power-shutoff trick, which finally turns out to be good for something. But then we have to slog through pages and pages and pages of pseudohistorical prose, exposition, description, and more pseudohistorical drone.

I think I got my predilection for skipping transitions by reading these books. All those long, long, long summaries glazed me out then and still do. I’d rather jump to the next action scene and pick up any relevant details on the fly, than get Every Single Detail in big blocks of exposition.

I am shallow, I know.

Mercifully, after the summary comes some actual characters doing stuff, but then there’s all the recap, and the blow-by-blow of the new magic, exactly the same as the old magic—though that’s maybe fan-service, if fans dearly loved those particular passages. There seem to be only so many ways to describe setting up wards, reading minds, and hypnotizing people, which is the bulk of what Deryni do with their powers.

The pacing is glacial. We do have Davin’s adventure coming up (we can hope Droning Narrator doesn’t take over), and Tavis and Javan are millimetering toward the terrible truth about Haldanes. But it’s a long, slow, leisurely, winding, recursive process.

Deryni: still awful. Humans: just as awful. Javan: much too smart for his own good. Joram: designated grinch. Evaine: getting more dangerous by the chapter.

And Camber, of course: starting to realize just how badly messed up the whole situation is. But still the master of convincing himself he’s Daddy, and Daddy knows best.

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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