Rereading Katherine Kurtz

Rereading Katherine Kurtz: It’s a Wrap!

Here we are at last, at the end of the great Deryni Reread. Two trilogies. Two timelines. Both sets of stories continue in later volumes, but these are the core texts of the Kurtzian universe.

It’s been interesting to watch Kurtz evolve as a writer in these books. Especially compared to its sequels, Deryni Rising is a tightly plotted, intensely focused little jewel of a book. It has flaws (notably a few glaring plotholes and a very problematical collection of female characters), but its main characters are vivid and lively, its swashes are buckled with panache, and it introduces a richly described world and setting that left me eager for more.

Deryni Checkmate and High Deryni gave me a good bit of what I was craving. More Morgan and Duncan and Kelson. More magic and adventure. Answers to questions about Deryni magic, the history of Gwynedd, the backgrounds of the principal characters. And more Derry, because we love our Sean, we do.

In these books, Kurtz starts opening up as a writer. She is not a stylist, as Ursula Le Guin so memorably and pointedly observed, but she tries. She reaches for, if not epic grandeur, then the scope and perspective of the historian. Often that means long passages of synopsis and too many missed opportunities for dramatized scenes, but then she finds her stride again and gives us Dame Bethane working the terrible, broken spell with its tragic consequences, Morgan and Duncan triggering the ancient warning in the ruined abbey, Kelson taking charge over and over when everyone needs a king who knows how to rule, Stefan Coram’s grand sacrifice…

No matter how often I might mutter about plotholes and clunky prose and awful poetry and ye gods those awful females, I could not stop reading. These are obsessively readable books. They pull me along irresistibly. Half of me wants to simply submerge myself in the world and the characters. The other half wants to fix the holes and the wobbles, and make them work, damn it—and that’s where I found my own fiction, all those years ago. The impetus to write was there. Kurtz showed me where I wanted to go with it.

The Camber books never struck me to the heart the way the first trilogy did. I wanted to know about that period of the world’s history, and the books did that, at least. At the time they first appeared, I bought into the hype about Camber: the brilliant statesman, the powerful mage, the great scholar, the biggest, the grandest, the best.

But that didn’t age well. The more I learned about history and politics and the craft of writing, the less impressed I was. I started seeing the gaps in the worldbuilding and the characterization. Morgan didn’t hold up to scrutiny, either, but while I mostly just wanted to smack him and tell him to grow up, I started to see Camber as a downright toxic influence on everyone around him.

That’s a problem, I think, with a series written to fill in gaps in a fictional history. The timeline is already set. If a character’s death appears on a certain date, there’s no room to maneuver. He has to die then, and it’s a real art and a difficult craft to work within those strictures.

There are writers who can do it. They’re often drawn to historical fiction, and welcome the challenge of telling a story with immutable and sometimes intractable limits.

I don’t think Kurtz was comfortable trying to work within the timeline she’d developed. She missed opportunities to develop credible motivations, she wandered off on a long and unresolved tangent about Revan and the Deryni power shutoff switch, and she not only killed off Rhys in a random and senseless way—in the middle of a battle, no less, when you’d think he could simply be a casualty of the fight—but kept reminding us of it, as if to make sure we all knew for absolute certain sure that this was a bad plot decision.

Because apparently there was no way to revise the original scene once it was written?

And yet there’s good story-stuff in here. Camber does not hold up to scrutiny, but some of the supporting cast are lovely: the original Alister Cullen, his beloved Jebediah, Prince Javan, the conflicted and complicated Tavis, the villainously magnificent Ariana. Rhys is no Sean Derry, but he’s a clear fan favorite. And Evaine transforms from a barely independent and cheerfully amoral extension of her father into a genuinely strong woman.

Of course she had to lose everything first, but that’s not unusual in the hero’s journey. As severely underserved as Kurtz’s female characters are in these two series, Evaine stands out as the most well-rounded, with the closest approximation of what we now call agency.

Kurtz’s characters are one of her strong points. So are her descriptions: of landscapes, castles and palaces and abbeys and cathedrals, and elaborate set-pieces with gorgeous costumes. But if there’s anything that truly defines these books, it’s their deeply rooted religious faith and their intricate and lovingly detailed rituals and liturgies.

Liturgy pervades these books. It’s a deeply and authentically medieval preoccupation, a sense of the numinous power of ritual in both religion and magic. Deryni, when they wield their powers, make direct contact with the divine—or, in the case of the villains, the demonic.

We learn late in Camber the Heretic that ritual is a tool, a means of focusing raw power, but it is also a mechanism for combining faith and magic. Deryni religious devotion is a profoundly mystical experience, one that humans—with the exception of the Haldanes and the healer-saint Warin—can never know.

This is, as far as I know, unique to Katherine Kurtz. Her strong faith pervades these books. The world is built on it, and the Deryni live it.

That’s not to say religion is uniformly a positive thing. There are venal or downright evil clerics in plenty, from the wicked Archbishop Loris to the corrupt and hateful Hubert. The Church is a powerful institution whose validity is never questioned, but its human and Deryni members represent a broad spectrum of morals and ethics.

When the first trilogy was published, there was nothing quite like it. Medieval historical novels and fantasies tended to be reflexively anti-Papist—viewing the period though the lens of the Protestant Reformation, with the added distortion of Victorian medievalism—or else slid past the question of religion altogether. Kurtz offered a fantasy world with a genuinely Western Medieval world view, combined with the plot tropes and the aesthetics of Fifties and Sixties movie swashbucklers. We all loved Kurtz’s beautiful blond heroes and their sturdy brown-haired sidekicks—and, of course, the adorable redheaded Rhys.

Beginning with Deryni Checkmate with its tragic denouement, but especially in the Camber trilogy, which was based on a history of persecution and genocide, these books foreshadowed another and much less bright and sunny trend: the mode which came to be called grimdark. Grim worlds full of blood and conflict, with astronomical body counts and nonstop ick and awfulness.

The world of the Deryni is by no means a crapsack world. There’s more light than darkness, and even in the depths of the Deryni persecutions, we know the good guys will eventually win. But when the books go dark, they become very dark indeed, until we come to the massacre at Trurill.

That’s not easy reading, and it’s certainly not “comfy-cozy medievalism,” as detractors at the time liked to dismiss Kurtz and her fellow medieval fantasists. Kurtz’s Middle Ages is relentlessly white and aristocratic and nearly universally male, but sweetness and light it is not. It tackles difficult questions of ethnic conflict and racial prejudice, and it does not flinch from showing the dark side.

While parts of the books—and their protagonists—did not hold up for me, it’s still clear why I loved them so much when I first read them. They spoke to my young and callow self, they encouraged my medievalist tendencies, and they helped me find my own way as a writer. I owe them, and their author, a tremendous debt.

And damn, they were fun. They still are. I’m glad I had the opportunity to revisit them, and I hope you’ve enjoyed reading along with me.

What about you? How did the books strike you, this time around? Did they hold up for you? Are you tempted to continue reading these histories, if you haven’t read them all?

I know I am. I especially want to know what happens with Javan, and how the Haldanes manage to survive those wicked regents.

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 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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