Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: Camber the Heretic, Chapter 30 and Epilogue

Welcome to the weekly reread of Camber the Heretic! Last time, Tavis and Javan forged an alliance with Camber and company, while Evaine rode into a massacre and emerged with a symbol of hope for the future.

This week we come to the end of the book. Camber discovers his destiny, while Evaine leads the family, and the Deryni, into the future.

 

Camber the Heretic: Chapter 30 and Epilogue

Here’s What Happens: Chapter 30 begins as many Kurtzian chapters do, with a Biblical quotation. This one’s from Job, and it implies (or promises?) that when all this awfulness is over, there will be actual hope. (And we know that’s true because the future holds Alaric Morgan and King Kelson.)

The chapter itself threatens the ordeal of Droning Narrator, but—relief!—it’s just a paragraph trying to be Epically Pretentious. It’s New Year’s Day and Camber and Niallan are at Mass (with a nice chunk of liturgical Latin) when the Portal activates.

It’s Tavis, minus Javan. He has terrible news. Javan made a point of attending the meeting at which the regents ratified the Ramos Conventions. It is now, basically, a crime to be Deryni.

Javan conveyed all the details of the meetingto Tavis by magic, then they spent the night perfecting Javan’s long-distance telepathic skills. Now Tavis has evacuated to Dhassa.

They all adjourn to Niallan’s solar to discuss the ramifications, including whether Deryni can even be educated (they can, but they can’t teach, in case they teach magic). We get a chunk of synopsis about how Tavis will keep in touch with Javan, followed by further discussion about Javan’s situation and Tavis’ future. He notes that even if he shape-changes, he’s still identifiable because of the missing hand.

Camber leaps on this. Tavis is in perfect position to join the Willimites as a disgruntled anti-Deryni Deryni—and then to connect with Revan and push the long-discussed and frequently deferred Deryni power shutoff plan. Camber orders Niallan to take Tavis under his wing for a while, as Camber and company work on moving to the secret Council location.

Once that’s settled, the narrative switches back to synopsis. Camber gets the news from Trurill, is suitably shocked and horrified, and relays it to the others. They decide (or rather Camber decides and everybody else obligingly follows along) that Camber and Jebediah should ride to St. Mary’s and help Joram set up the Portal there.

This means one last episode of derring-do, with Camber and Jebediah disguised as itinerant knights. They Portal to the ruins near Grecotha, then spend a night in hard labor, tunneling out of the Portal. Once they’ve reached the open air, they steal the first of several changes of horses, and set off for a multi-day ride. They evade pursuit, escape notice (with a nice little bit about how they’re both “rather older than one would expect still to be in military service”—non-twentysomething heroes for the win, and now I’m seeing Alister/Camber as Harrison Ford)—and finally get trapped by bad luck in an inn outside of Culdi. Camber’s pectoral cross slips into view, and he’s been acting suspiciously in other ways. He’s spotted by a group of enemy knights.

The narrative summary shifts to the knights’ viewpoint, which is appropriately bloodthirsty and mustache-twirly. It goes on for pages, as they make deductions from the appearance of the two men in black, and speculate (in summary), and snicker and twirl mustaches some more. Very gradually they deduce that one of the men must be Alister Cullen, and the other must be—who else?—Jebediah.

And then, for long, long paragraphs, they ponder (in synopsis) the pair’s reasons for being in this scrap of an inn near Culdi. Because stretching tension till it sags so far it disappears seems to be one way of avoiding finishing a trilogy.

Camber and Jebediah, meanwhile, are blissfully unaware of all this narrative meandering. Because Deryni really only have powers when the plot needs them to, and they seem to have no actual sixth sense (in the something-is-not-right line) at all. They ride out the next day in wide-eyed innocence, not even troubling to wonder why four knights belonging to the new Earl of Culdi are leaving at the exact same time.

You’d think, wouldn’t you? Since Jeb is such a great military mind, and Camber is the smartest Deryni who ever lived.

Not terribly bright, really, these Deryni. When all’s considered.

At noon they stop at a roadside shrine. Camber goes into telepathic trance in an attempt to contact Evaine. He’s absolutely oblivious to the knights’ approach. Because really, in a kingdom packed with enemies, where what one is doing has just been declared a criminal act, why should one pay attention to one’s surroundings? And why would Jebediah, the experienced soldier, possibly want to take precautions against either pursuit or capture?

Thank goodness for Camber’s stallion being a stallion and raising stalliony hell. (Major points to Kurtz for knowing her horses, though not enough to make up for the deficit in basic character competence.) Jebediah is too busy fussing with the horses to think that, you know, human knights might be a threat.

And then there’s a long, detailed, bloody melee of men and horses, during which Jebediah manages to get kicked in the chest. Jebediah is collecting wounds at an alarming rate.

Camber adds to the chaos by spooking the enemy horses with his cloak. He’s collecting wounds, too. And he’s desperately upset. “He had to get to Jebediah and defend him!”

Because of course Camber the cleric and scholar has to defend the veteran fighting man in a sword-and-horse fight.

The battle rages on. Camber is starting to get tired. Jeb is down, still fighting, but flagging fast. Camber channels Alister in a last-ditch effort to get control of the situation.

Suddenly there’s a blast of light. When it dies away, the battle is over. Alister’s spell worked. Jeb is still alive. The attackers are not.

Camber realizes his spell killed Jeb’s attacker, but Jeb added to it with “darkling magic”—and the backlash has left him in bad shape. He’s also bleeding from a femoral artery.

Camber demands to know what he did. “Just a little energy diversion,” Jeb replies.

Camber tries desperately to save him. He resists, and insists on making his last confession. It’s very fraught and is meant to be poignant.

As with Cinhil, Camber follows Jeb into the Light—where the real Alister is waiting. Jeb and Alister run into each other’s arms.

They invite Camber to join them. But he’s not ready—yet. He’s still alive, but dying. He comes to beside Jeb’s body.

He resumes his own form, which opens him telepathically to Evaine and Joram. They’re frantic. He eases them out and focuses on what he needs to do.

This takes a while. He reflects at length on Ariella’s death and the spell she tried to work, which he also tried to work on Rhys (and which we know will be worked, in the future, on King Brion).

Camber achieves the apotheosis of his ego—er, an epiphany. He has a destiny! He can live in the space between life and death! It’s God’s plan! It’s fate! He can save his people!

He works the spell. It’s ever so easy. Because, of course, he’s Camber. And he has a Destiny.

Scene change. Same setting, much later. One of the presumed-dead knights comes to. His name, we’re told, is Rondel. He realizes he’s the only survivor, which means he doesn’t have to split the reward for the two Deryni.

It takes him quite some time to round up a horse. He may be an evil, greedy person, but he’s a good horseman. Once he’s caught the horse and calmed it down, he goes back to clean up the scene and load the two clerics’ bodies on the horse.

Suddenly a dozen riders with torches approach. He steals Camber’s gold cross as proof of what happened, and bolts for safety.

And that’s the end of the book, give or take an epilogue. Our trilogy has ended, essentially, on a cliffhanger.

The Epilogue opens with Evaine grieving in St. Mary’s while the men continue building the Portal. She’s being protected because she’s still recovering from the birth of Jerusha, and last night she wore herself out on that terrible ride to the roadside shrine.

Jebediah and Camber are now lying in state. She changed Camber’s shape back to Alister’s once she found his body, “for the benefit of Ansel and the others.”

She’s all alone now “except for Joram and the children.” No Daddy. No Rhys. She’ll keep fighting because Daddy wanted her to, but she’s lost heart.

She goes to the body and shifts it back, for another round of grieving. It dawns on her that there’s something odd about the hands. They’re curved in the shape of a familiar spell.

She realizes Camber may still be alive. Before she can do anything about it, Joram arrives. She debates whether to tell him, then decides. She tells him to look at Camber’s hands.

He’s slow to catch on, but she keeps dropping hints till he gets it. They discuss the spell, and whether Evaine (who’s clearly the true heir of Camber) can bring Camber back. Joram breaks down. Evaine comforts him, and plots and plans and calculates and strategizes.

She knows what needs to be done. Camber’s body has to be hidden away. The myth of the saint has to be maintained. The Council has “foundered,” but she’ll organize a secret inner circle to continue the mission.

We’re deep in Drone here, in what feels like a cut and paste from the worldbuilding notes. They need Camber, she concludes, and they’ll do whatever it takes to bring him back.

She hugs her brother, and feels another presence. It really is Camber. She and Joram stand together in epic solidarity, faces toward the future and the generations that will follow: “there would be the hope of all tomorrows.”

And she swears she can see her father smile.

Fin.

 

And I’m Thinking: Well, that’s that. Camber is dead but not really. Jeb finally gets to be with his beloved Alister, and I have a suspicion that Kurtz knew what was going on there. She just couldn’t, at the time, be too explicit.

Evaine is left with her own destiny: to do the heavy lifting for the younger generation. Joram isn’t really up to it, but he’ll follow where he’s led. Evaine, after being shunted to the side for so long, has finally come into her own. She’s an actual strong female character with agency, and though she’s carrying on Daddy’s work, she’s invested in it for herself. It’s not just a sigh and a sacrifice. She means it.

What we have here is not really an ending. More of a pause, with swelling theme music, and characters with lifted faces, gazing soulfully into the distance. Things in Gwynedd are bad and will get much worse, but there’s hope. And where there’s hope, there’s Camber.

Next week I’ll wrap up the series. I’d love to hear from readers who have followed the whole reread, and from fans and followers of Katherine Kurtz’s work. She’s so important to the fantasy genre, though as with so many other women writers, her influence has tended to be ignored or forgotten.

Till next week, then. And for here and now, let me know how this ending strikes you. Does it work for you? Does it satisfy?

For me, I think, though I hate cliffhangers, to an extent it does. It has some closure, but it looks forward to more Deryni adventures. It answers a number of questions and leaves the door open for further discoveries. And it gives us, at long last, a female Kurtzian character with some depth and a complex personality.

It will do.

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 recently 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 by 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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