Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber the Heretic, Chapters 18-19

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber the Heretic!

Lat time, the Camberian Council planted a mole in the royal court as the political situation kept on deteriorating. This week, the human-Deryni situation continues to worsen. Rhys and Evaine check in on Revan, now a holy hermit, and a Deryni attack on the princes ends in tragedy.

 

Camber the Heretic: Chapters 18-19

Here’s What Happens: It’s Chapter 18, and oh, no! Droning Narrator is baaaack! Deryni are scrambling to escape persecutions that haven’t actually seriously happened yet, and that no one is trying to stop because if they do, there won’t be any reign of King Kelson in the future. Which of course no one can possibly know, but the author does, and that means the plot does. And the plot is in the driver’s seat.

I believe I shall use this as an example of what not to do when you have a lot of material to cover and a synopsis already written and there’s a deadline and why not just use the synopsis.

Actual dramatized scenes we might have had if Droning Narrator hadn’t been in charge:

Gregory turns sour and abandons public life.

Davin gets his memory back and stays undercover as Eidiard.

Jaffray handles the regency council. He and Davin relay information to the Camberian Council. Undercover heroism! Ongoing danger of discovery!

The regents are going after Michaelines. Some are arrested (scene!). Jebediah does damage control. And reveals that there is an actual planet outside of Gwynedd, and there are Michaeline houses on that planet.

Camber and company still aren’t getting anywhere with the power-shutoff switch. Rereader wishes they would find something else to do. Like, follow the Michaeline example. Devote energy to smuggling people out of the country.

And amid all the drone, Revan. Who has a nice, dramatic, potentially derring-do-y job, but we haven’t seen a bit of it.

Until, oh thank the Powers, we finally get a scene. It finally dawns on all concerned that all the lollygagging and the tailchasing has to stop. Rhys has to finally, at long last, after much circling around and around, actually do what he’s been saying he has to do for many many many pages. He has to go in and do it himself.

So here Rhys and Evaine are, in disguise as wide-eyed peasants, entering the Willimite camp. They’re looking for the “holy hermit.” This is dangerous and derring-do-y so of course they’re going for it. And it is nice to see a lowly female do some derring for a change.

And there’s a weathered Willimite speaking in quite mild dialect for a Kurtzian commoner, and eventually he allows as how it’s Brother Revan they’re looking for. “He’s touched by God, he is!” (The soundtrack in my brain is giving me Audrey Hepburn as Eliza Doolittle in her broadest Cockney phase.)(I apologize.)

Evaine takes point in the drama, all agog and aghast and can the holy hermit really remove the taint of Deryni from people who’ve been forced to serve them? Please please, she pleads, laying it on six inches thick. She wants her unborn child to be clean!

Rhys does the indulgent-husband thing. She’s “overwrought,” you know. With her condition and all. He adds his pleading to hers.

Now he’s got everyone’s attention, including a possible Deryni woman. Rhys flips Evaine’s switch just in case, and off they go, leading a parade to the holy hermit.

Revan, much transformed, is preaching to a small audience according to the script he was fed when the Camber family sent him here, all about the cursed being saved and evil transformed. After some drama with disciples and blessings, the weathered Willimite introduces Rhys and Evaine.

Revan shows no sign of recognizing them. He withdraws to the cave, followed by the Willimite and the undercover couple. Rhys quickly flips Evaine back on again.

Once inside, Revan makes sure to set the Willimite up for a mind-whammy. Then they can settle in for a quick chat.

Revan is still totally a Camber-family agent. Rhys fills him in on developments elsewhere, including the fact that no one else has been able to learn to flip the switch. He’s still trying to get out of doing the job. Revan is all right with that.

Evaine is antsy. Hurry up, she says. Rhys scans Revan’s memories so far and makes sure the protections are still solid—just in time. Someone else is coming. They reactivate the Willimite, go back to playing humble peasants begging for a blessing, and get out of there.

And the chapter ends with the situation still hanging fire, and nothing actually accomplished. But at least it’s not Narrative Drone.

Unfortunately, Chapter 19 brings back the drone.

Scenes we do not get:

The Camberian Council meets. Rhys and Evaine report. So do Jaffray and Davin.

The Michaelines disperse. Almost none are left in Gwynedd.

The regents continue to build military strength.

The regents also continue to freeze Deryni nobles out of positions of power. The regents are bad. Bad bad bad.

Total number of Deryni close to power now: Jaffray and Tavis.

The regents get even badder. They start forcibly recruiting Deryni to find Deryni. These are called—yes, they are—“Deryni sniffers.” They are drugged and controlled by threats to their families. Collaborators are quick to sign on–pre-obedience being a trait of the less courageous under autocratic rule.

Many scenes are missing here, much potential for drama lost in passive voice and narrative drone.

Once again, at the point of maximum reader frustration, Kurtz dribbles out another actual scene. The princes are out riding with Tavis and Davin (points for keeping the characters straight with that many similar names—Javan’s in the group, too). Tavis can be a falconer with one hand, which makes him happy. Rhys Michael is allergic to birds, but rides along anyway.

Rhys Michael and “Eidiard” are good buddies. (Scene. Scene scene scene. Where’s the scene?)

When they stop for lunch, Javan takes Tavis to a campsite he’s found. He wants to know if the little folk have been there.

Tavis doesn’t believe in little folk, but he reflects on pagan survivals in the countryside. He also detects the use of magical power. It’s not something a human should be able to sense.

Javan asks about equinox festivals, and gets a lesson in history and culture. He then confesses that the place feels “strange, somehow. Magical, maybe.”

Tavis tries to joke it away. What can a human know of magical feelings? Javan is offended. “After the times I’ve helped you!” He stomps off, back to the rest of the party.

At the next opportunity, Tavis tenders his apology. Javan isn’t playing. Tavis promised to help him remember the night Cinhil died, and hasn’t fulfilled his promise.

Tavis makes many excuses. He’s working on it. It’s hard. It’s complicated. He’ll try soon. Tonight.

Now, says Javan. Nobody will notice. They’re all asleep or busy.

He insists. Tavis gives in. Javan orders him to put Rhys Michael to sleep. Tavis gives in to that, too.

Davin, across the camp, catches the general gist of this, and keeps an eye on it.

Tavis and Javan get down to it, pretending it’s about Healing Javan’s perennially sore foot. They keep bickering. Javan is blasting psychically. Tavis pulls him up short—anyone with powers can pick it up.

Davin is still watching, and wondering. He doesn’t know about the Haldanes, but it looks as if he’s about to learn.

He starts to report to the Council monitor. It’s “Bishop Alister,” but Alister/Camber is busy reading. Davin decides not to disturb him. (We are reminded that Davin does not know Alister is really his late grandfather.)

Davin keeps on surreptitiously watching. Suddenly one of the horses sounds the alert. Davin picks up on Deryni shields.

They’re under attack. Arrows! Swords! Action! Danger! Bloodshed!

Even Tavis joins the defense. Davin protects Rhys Michael. Javan struggles with his clubfoot, but manages a heroic assault on one of the attackers.

Davin takes an arrow in the back, meant for Rhys Michael. The fight ends soon after with the surviving attackers captured and the princes attended to.

Davin is in bad shape. He can’t feel his legs.

“Bishop Alister” gets in contact, and is appalled. The arrow is in a very bad place. Davin can’t let Tavis Heal him even if there were anything the fairly minor Healer could do: he’ll blow his cover. He opens himself to Alister and accepts the last rites.

But he’s not dead yet. There’s still Tavis to deal with.

In the ensuing fuss, Tavis realizes Davin isDeryni. Davin tells him what’s safe to tell: he was sent to protect the princes, he’s not one of the bad Deryni.

But Tavis keeps pushing. Davin makes sure the soldier with him jostles the arrow, and goes into the many-colored light we remember from Cinhil’s death.

And there’s Camber, guiding him onward. Tavis sees “Saint Camber” and is awed.

Then Davin is dead, and the shape-changing spell lets go. He’s revealed as the Earl of Culdi.

 

And I’m Thinking: I have to give it to Kurtz. She can drive me around the bend with her relentless Droning Narration when she could be writing actual scenes with actual character interaction and actual plot movement, but then when she bothers to write a scene, she demonstrates why she won so loyal and passionate an audience—including, at the time, me.

Davin’s death scene is vintage Kurtz. Slam-bang action, deadly danger, grievous losses—and a crashing finale. If only there were more like this.

The Revan plot continues not to do anything for me. It tries so hard to amount to something that it strains at the seams, but the deftness with pacing and drama and action that’s so evident in the attack scene is absent here. We get the same recitation over and over: Rhys can’t find anyone else to flip the power switch, Rhys has to do it himself, Rhys is by gum going to find someone else so he doesn’t have to do it himself, rinse, repeat. Seeing what’s just happened to Davin, I find myself wishing she’d just kill Rhys off and be done with it. That must be where it’s heading, what with all the wibbling and wobbling and avoiding and fussing. (Not cheating and checking the chronologies to find Rhys’ death date. I’ll let it be a surprise. Or not.)

Meanwhile the Michaelines are doing the sensible thing, which is get the hell out of Gwynedd. You’d think the rest of the Deryni would follow their example.

Except there’s not any real reason for them to do that. Things are getting tricky but none of the Deryni is doing anything sensible or useful. The Council puts one single mole in the court, and he just got killed off—and his cover blown in a really bad way. Worse, he was killed by Deryni, which points to the lack of sense or use in anything the allegedly superior race are doing.

Too much plot outline, not enough internal logic. And way too much narrative drone. I miss the tight plotting and the clear focus of Deryni Rising, in which everything but the first scene happens in a single day. This is just flabby—though when it’s on, as with Davin’s death, it’s as strong as it ever was.

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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