Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber the Heretic, Chapters 28-29

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber the Heretic! Last time, Camber’s brilliant plan went awry, as the conflict between Church and Crown came to a violent conclusion.

This week, Tavis and Javan forge an alliance with Camber and company. Evaine rides into a massacre and comes out with a symbol of hope for the future. And the Camber family makes plans for that future.


Camber the Heretic: Chapters 28-29

Here’s What Happens: As Chapter 29 opens, Tavis and Javan escape through a Portal disguised as “an ordinary garderobe” without the sanitary facilities. We get the details of how it works, which includes Javan’s nervousness and inability to concentrate. Tavis finally has to knock him out briefly to get him through.

The scene shifts to Dhassa, with Camber hastily called to the Portal, where Tavis and Javan are trapped. Camber lets them loose, and Tavis promptly starts explaining—and asks where Rhys is. Camber tells him. Tavis and Javan proceed to melt down, at some length.

Finally Camber points out that Rhys would have died anyway—“an awful, senseless, tragic accident!” Because doubling down on the weak plot element, with exclamation point, seems like a good idea.

The synopsis takes over, and we get a summary of the long and rather important conversation, with bonus internal monologue on Camber’s part. Camber is impressed with his new allies. They meanwhile are being Explained To, in summary, and it’s all about how Javan has to be ready to take over from Alroy (timeline on top of summary—that’s two authorial slackoffs for the price of one). Alroy’s weak, he’s unfit, of course they won’t harm him, but.

Then they all kneel and pledge to support (but not pay formal, royal homage to) Javan. And then we finally emerge from synopsis to actual scene.

Camber puts Tavis on the spot about the Deryni power switch. Camber wants a demonstration. Because we haven’t already seen enough of those. Of course he doesn’t trust Tavis, but he’s bound and determined to do this anyway, and use Niallan as a lab rat.

This is brilliant and twisty, we’re supposed to think, because Niallan’s the only person who can let any of them out of the chamber, either physically or by Portal. Which means that if his powers are shut off, they have to be turned back on.

Not that Camber’s bothered to ask permission. Camber doesn’t stoop to such things. Niallan doesn’t argue, of course.

Then Camber offers Tavis a sort of out. “Would you rather someone else?” Which rather undercuts his reasoning for choosing Niallan in the first place, but that’s Camber for you.

So we get yet another reprise of the switch being flipped, and everybody is shocked and awed. It works!

Tavis promptly flips Niallan back on. Camber fusses briefly, again, about whether Tavis can be trusted, and then the synopsis comes back, again. Tavis gives a full report of what’s been going on in Rhemuth, with an evident effort to open up to being read. Camber works hard on patience.

End synopsis. Camber sends Javan out of the way. Tavis very nervously and at considerable length works his way around to the real reason he’s there. In the process he and Camber/Alister end up on a first-name basis, and go into detail about the concept of trust. Then Camber gets to be all superior and mysterious and expository about the various denominations of Deryni, and specifically Healer, training. (All in religious orders, all apparently male.)

Camber is condescending about Tavis’ “pragmatic” training, and Healersplains him, with humblebragging about how he knows all the words even if he can’t actually Heal.

This segues into a detailed bit of spellworking, including lengthy reassurance and instruction, and the fact Camber was a late learner. It takes quite some time and a great deal of shaking and attacks of the horrors from Tavis, along with a whole sequence about how Tavis really should stop thinking his disability is a moral failing, ending with Camber’s hand actually on the stump and Tavis all verklempt about it. This was poignant at the time, but now it’s painfully ableist.

And then Camber gets to be condescending again. “So, do you think you’re ready to learn a childhood spell now?” When Tavis shakily says he is, Camber instructs him, in exacting detail, in how to make mental contact.

In the process he explains that the words of the ritual don’t mean anything. They’re a tool for focus and protection. Which is actually very illuminating about Deryni magic in general.

Eventually (very eventually) the contact is made, and Tavis throws down all his defenses. Total trust. It’s almost orgasmic for Camber. He conceals his true identity (and the events of That Night) and gives Tavis the full Alister experience, during which we learn that Tavis will end up on the Council—Camber “sensed instinctively” that it would happen. I think that means he has The Timeline in his hindbrain.

More synopsis. More summary. Tavis joins the resistance, and they discuss (in summary) the logistics.

Tavis wakes up on the floor. He’s all stammery and shocked. Camber ever so kindly explains about locking and unlocking knees in individuals falling (literally or not) into trance.

Tavis is in awe of what they just did. It appears deep rapport is a Deryni “birthright” but has been suppressed for reasons that aren’t exactly clear. Camber is patronizing. He welcomes Tavis to the cause.

Javan pipes up. “What about me?”

Tavis tries to shut him down, but Camber’s all in favor of striking while the Haldane iron is hot. He explains in words of few syllables what he and Tavis did.

Javan informs Camber he has shields. He’s willing to demonstrate. Camber’s good with that, but Tavis intervenes. He wants to be the intermediary. Camber is good with that, too, though not as good as he was with Javan’s original offer.

They go into rapport, in detail, and Camber finds something he can’t (won’t) explain to Tavis. He ponders this at some length. What he saw was that the Haldane powers have partially triggered, which shouldn’t have happened.

After a while he says he can’t say what’s going on, he promised Cinhil, but he can hint broadly that something’s happening and it’s related to the succession, and it didn’t trigger in Alroy, which is good because the regents are dangerous enough as it is.

Javan defends his twin. Camber calms him down, but points out that Alroy may not survive to his majority.

Tavis reveals that he thinks Alroy is kept sedated. He didn’t want to worry Javan by telling him.

This is not fatal. The regents want to keep Alroy alive, says Camber. He warns Javan to be very, very careful, especially once the regents get rid of Tavis.

They speculate further about why Javan’s been activated, and what the Haldane power trigger is about. Camber gives Tavis and Javan permission to keep experimenting, but not to rush things. Because Camber is Camber, and it’s all about him.

Back to the summary. They make plans. Tavis and Javan go back through the Portal.

Another actual scene. Camber, Niallan, Joram, and Jebediah make further plans. They worry about Evaine, who’s still out on the road. Camber wonders if maybe one of them should try to Portal to Cor Culdi, then travel by road to St. Mary’s where she’s headed.

Joram volunteers for a solo mission: get to St. Mary’s and construct a Portal to the Council chamber. They discuss logistics. Joram is all admiring and submissive. “You still manage to think of everything, don’t you?”

(Except on the many occasions when he not only doesn’t, he screws up badly.)

Chapter 29 shifts, at long last, to Evaine, who’s been busier than her father realizes. She’s been arranging things for the evacuation, including sealing the Portal at Sheele to family-only, and sending Queron to warn Revan. She doesn’t figure she’ll need his Healing powers for another month. This of course is a terrible idea, and we can be sure it will not end well.

Rhys’ death hits her suddenly as they ride along laughing in the Christmas sunlight (no blizzard here). She goes into a kind of zombie state for several days. When she comes out of it, on New Year’s Eve, she discovers they’ve almost reached Trurill, where her son Aidan is.

She gussies herself up for him (he likes her hair down—hoookay, nothing creepy about that, oh no, not at all), rides on—and realizes the castle is on fire. She doesn’t think Aidan is dead, but the situation is bad.

One of her escort goes down to see what’s happened, and comes back in shock. It’s a massacre.

She commandeers the scout’s horse—in her “condition,” to Ansel’s great dismay—and gets ready to ride to the castle. Ansel gives in, gives orders for the children to be taken care of (with bonus adorable-children scene), and rides with her.

The castle is a ruin full of mutilated dead. Eventually they find Aidan—impaled in the stableyard. He was scourged before he was thrust on the stake.

But his fate wasn’t nearly as terrible as the lord’s. Let’s just say Adrian MacLean’s death hits Game of Thrones levels of awful, and move quickly on.

Adrian’s son Camlin is still alive, barely. He was crucified. Ansel gets him down, with help. Evaine tends his wounds as best she can.

Camlin comes to, and Evaine does what she can to alleviate the pain. Suddenly she realizes her three-year-old son is there, demanding to help.

Tieg is a Healer, exactly like Rhys, and already powerful. Evaine undertakes to channel his untrained powers to Heal Camlin. They work together, and succeed, all the way to blunting his memory.

When she’s done, Tieg is adorably asleep (he has his father’s freckles), and she has a mild cramp—the baby objecting to her overdoing it, she says to Ansel. She organizes further searches for survivors, which yield the body of Camber’s sister Aislinn, dead without a mark on her. Several other MacLeans are missing, and haven’t been found.

Ansel has a pyre built to burn the dead. As Ansel lays Aidan on the pyre, Evaine’s water breaks.

Now they are in a completely different kind of crisis mode. They rig a place for Evaine to deliver the baby. Evaine meanwhile has to deal with fractious children, while trying to teach Ansel what she can about birthing babies.

In the midst of this, the missing MacLean ladies are found in the midden. Fiona is in good mental condition but Mairi, Adrian’s wife, is nearly catatonic.

Fiona tells Evaine what happened, how they escaped with Aislinn covering for them, and hid until just now.

Evaine’s daughter is born at nightfall. At that point Ansel gets them all out of there, with Evaine and the baby in a litter.

By the next evening they realize the murderers of Trurill are on their trail. They have to speed up, which means Evaine has to leave the litter behind. Ansel argues, but Fiona backs her up. The women will ride double—easier for the horse than trying to carry a man and one of the women, and Fiona declares she can keep Evaine and the baby from falling off.

Ansel gives in. They ride off into a budding snowstorm.

Evaine begins to hemorrhage. She hides it all the way to St. Mary’s and Joram’s arms.

The next she knows, she’s in bed in a warm room, and she’s in remarkably decent condition, considering. Joram, the abbot, and a stranger monk are in attendance, along, briefly, with Fiona.

The stranger monk, whose name is Brother Dominic, feeds her, and Joram allows as how he was ready to say the Last Rites. He remonstrates with her about taking such chances, discovers she sent Queron off to Revan, and remonstrates some more. She’s neither fazed nor apologetic. The baby is all right, he reports. (One wonders who, in a male monastery, is feeding the baby, since Evaine is probably the only lactating woman within miles. Also, who’s taking care of it? Fiona?)(Evaine continues to be a very lackadaisical mother, as far as paying consistent attention to her kids is concerned.)

Evaine asks after “Alister.” In Dhassa and safe, Joram replies. Joram gives her the news, which is all bad: Deryni persecuted, clerics defrocked, and further ordinations banned. Joram isn’t cooperating, of course.

He tells her how Rhys died. With more on the theme of “awful, senseless, tragic.” She is stoic.

She also points out that they can’t stay here and put the monks in danger. Joram tells her about the plan to move everybody to the place where they stowed Cinhil, years ago, and set up a Portal. He won’t let Evaine help with that.

She tells Joram about Tieg and the Healing of Camlin, and finally breaks down. Brother Dominic is back with more soup, and Joram insists that she eat it. Her job, he says, is to rest and recover. Everybody else will take care of everything else. Including, presumably, the baby.


And I’m Thinking: I am trying to understand why we keep being beaten over the head with the utter senselessness of Rhys’ death. Modernistic realism I kind of get, though it doesn’t exactly fit the genre, but it’s as if Kurtz can’t stop poking at her bad plot decision. “I didn’t do this right! I know I didn’t do this right! It was a stupid author trick! Everybody is going to point it out! Often!”

The massacre at Trurill gives the Red Wedding and the various hobbies of Ramsay Bolton a run for their money. It’s authentically medieval in its details, and it’s grandly grimdark. What keeps it out of George Martin territory is the magical healing scene with the adorable freckled three-year-old and the miraculous recovery of the sole surviving MacLean male. That offers hope, as does the birth of Evaine’s daughter and her relatively simple recovery after nearly dying on horseback.

This is as close to the female gaze as Kurtz gets, and what do you know, she’s pretty good at it. Evaine won’t win any prizes for attentive motherhood, but she’s smart, composed, capable, and only breaks down when she has time for it. Fiona is tough and resilient and does what she has to. Mairi, the nearly comatose, has ample reason for being in that condition; she’s not played as a weak female.

Maybe Kurtz was paying attention, and realized she could write realistic, competent women after all? I was fully expecting to get Evaine’s ride offstage or in Narrative Drone, and for her to turn into a shrieking idiot once the situation got difficult, but she comes through admirably. I’m impressed.

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, was published last fall 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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