Deryni

Following the pattern I’ve established (intermittently) of rereading books I read about and loved twenty years ago and haven’t read since, I picked up Chronicles of the Deryni a couple of weeks ago or so. Katherine Kurtz created a world based on dreams she had, I read once, that she believes were channeled actual historical tales from a land far far away or long long ago or whathaveyou. In the initial trilogy, we have King Brion out hunting when he is suddenly seized with a heart attack – or something; murder, actually – and far too soon Brion’s son Kelson, at the age of 14, is king of Gwynedd.

It’s a good story. Gwynedd is a land which has been ruled by humans for about 300 years, since the Interregnum was brought to an end: the period in which invading Deryni reigned. Whether Deryni (basically people with added powers: mind reading, the ability to detect lies, telekinesis, magical duels, the ability to influence and enthrall: basically, they’re Jedi) existed in Gwynedd before the Festil invasion is unclear; the invaders are Deryni, they favor Deryni, but whether all the Deryni there eventually are in this country came with them … anyway. 300 odd years ago things were going along just fine under the human Haldane rule, when the Deryni Festils swooped in and slaughtered (most of) the Haldanes and took the throne; they did ok for less than 80 years, then got greedy and nasty and were themselves deposed in favor of the Haldanes again. And despite the fact that there were “good” Deryni backing the restoration, Deryni shortly became the targets of a purge, reactionary to the abuses suffered by plain old humans under the Festil rule, and were nearly wiped out. Kelson’s story takes place in a time when Deryni are just starting to get a fingernail hold back into acceptance, and that makes his job that much harder, as his mother, as it turns out, not only hates and fears Deryni but is Deryni…

I don’t know why I don’t love these books more. I did when I was younger, certainly – to the extent that the concept of looking backward from a period of having lost everything to the mundanes to a period when those with “power” ruled is the backbone of my writing. Oh, possibly, dear. The similarities aren’t as strong as I was starting to fear, starting this reread, but between Deryni Chronicles and the AIVAS in the Pern books the seeds were sown for a post-race-specific-apocalyptic tale, followed by stories from the time of the apocalypse… I’ll need to be careful to avoid closer parallels than that, but I think I’m all right.

As I was saying – I don’t know why I don’t adore these books. The writing is usually impeccable. KK is a historian, and deeply enmeshed in the SCA, and her detail work is (as far as I, a comparative ignoramus, can tell), dead on. She embeds deep knowledge about the Catholic church, the Bible, and religious life, arms and armor and use thereof, and medieval ways and means in general to give her work a more solid grounding in reality than almost any I can think of. She uses dialect well but sparingly (as it should be), and in fact her dialogue is generally really very natural and … good; she rarely blips my pet peeve radar by anachronistic phrasing; the characters are Good Guys without quite being paragons of aggravating virtue, and they have disparate personalities – Kelson worked as a youth and Duncan as a rather worldly priest and so on. Yet terrible things happen and I don’t cry; wonderful things happen and I don’t get all misty; I’m left untouched by the events of the story. Which is a great shame. I keep thinking as I’m reading on through the series what a great total concept this is, what great storytelling, what great detail and breadth of knowledge and … I can pick it up and put it down with great ease. That shouldn’t be. The only thing I can think of to account for it is a slight chill in the narration. There’s third person omniscient narration, and there’s third person omniscient narration; this particular 3PON is, I feel, strangely distant in tone, very much third-person objective. Too objective. It’s impersonal. That’s it, I think: the feel is that the storyteller – as opposed to the writer, I guess – is utterly unbiased and detached from the events being described, and this makes it hard to warm up to the characters or to react strongly to events. Another factor in this is the off-handed way some information is disclosed. A major character’s marriage and the birth of his first child happened off-stage; it went from his being on fire for the woman for chapters and chapters to … no mention of her at all for chapters and chapters. For a good part of Deryni Checkmate, a woman is very pregnant, and then suddenly there’s no more mention of her or the baby for a while – until she and the baby appear in the background. The characters are far too focused on what’s in front of their noses – I’ll come back to that.

When I have time and exemplars handy I should take a look here at snippets from, say, Guy Kay or Kate Ross and compare them to Katherine Kurtz, especially if I can find sort of similar events being described. I fell idiotically in love with Kate Ross’s Julian Kestrel, and Guy Kay’s books are not ones I can pick up and put down easily. I’ve said it before: GGK requires a sort of mental calisthenics before I can crack one open. I’m passionate about GGK’s books. He makes me feel – does he ever. KK’s… I’m politely interested. Again, it’s a great pity; these are good books, but not great ones, books I’m enjoying reading but which I wouldn’t think to recommend to anyone or rush back to reread.

I think another factor in all of this is a strong questioning of characters’ actions, e.g. Seriously? They think nothing of pinning that man down and wiping his memory of what he’s seen and heard? And that man? And that one? And … on and on. I was brought up on Star Trek as my primary educational source regarding mind-to-mind contact. It’s rude, to say the least, to mess with someone’s mind without their consent. Actually, in I think every single other world I’ve read about that had people able to do it, it’s rape. But Morgan and Duncan – and others as well including Kelson when he gets stronger, but especially the dynamic duo of cousins there – traipse hither and yon blanking this man’s memory and “convincing” that one to do something and then forget it, willy nilly. Literally, will-he nill-he… Nobody’s safe, for they care for none – even friends are subject to occasional messings-with, though those sometimes come with apologies, either before or after. It’s troubling for me to read about the almost constant messing about with people’s thoughts and memories and wills. It’s troubling to read about them forcing their way here and pushing through there. These are supposed to be the good guys. When the bad guys do it I am expected to stand back with my hands on my hips and “tsk, for shame” – but hey, Morgan and Duncan couldn’t possibly make any errors! They have the Right of the Right to do what they will – all for a good cause, of course. Or, you know, to avoid a little trouble here and there.

Another good example of being bumped out of the story by a “he did what?” moment goes back to the misplaced focus thing (ironic with all the hypnosis and centering and such). A major character has what appears to be a stroke. Morgan, who has rediscovered the gift of healing, rushes to his bedside. Oh dear, he has wasted away, what a shame, we’ll miss him, now I need to be off on this other Very Important Errand, bye now. Which – it was an Important Errand, but – – sweetie? Did you forget something? Get your tight buns back to that bedside and lay on of hands! My mouth literally dropped open when he zoomed off that fast – “But – but – if he just – he’d be able to – and – Hey!” If he had done a little of that unlicensed poking about in this case, a lot of pain and suffering would have been avoided. Not even “could have” – would have. But off he went, with no more thought of trying to fix a man who *was his friend* than of trying to become an astronaut, and it’s not till chapters and weeks later (when it’s too late for some things) that he does that poking about. At which time I muttered things like “See?? See???”

One thing that’s both good and bad is – well, I see in the jacket notes that KK is a trained hypnotist. This is really a terrific foundation for Deryni magic – it’s solid. It’s smart. But … problem is, now that I’ve read that she’s thoroughly conversant in hypnotism I can’t help rolling my eyes a little when someone starts drawing a repetitive pattern in the sand or tossing off standard stock hypnotist phrases.

I finished what I have of the later-occurring Kelson novels (The Chronicles of the Deryni and The Histories of King Kelson; one of these days I want King Kelson’s Bride, I suppose, but I’m not in a great rush), and moved on to the Camber books. I’m looking forward to seeing how different the attitudes are here, how different trained, skilled, civilized Deryni are. I am about six chapters in on Camber of Culdi… What we have so far is: a young, apparently arrogant Deryni king (Imre); an elder statesman, also Deryni, who disapproves of said king’s policies as a prince and attitude as a king enough to leave court (Camber); the statesman’s son, a friend and counselor to the king (Cathan). Camber’s exact reasons for leaving are not really given; his “official” excuse is that he was getting on in years and wanted to spend time with his family. The real reasons – well, how bad was it? He’s purported to be one of the finest minds of his day, and was a loyal and steadfast guide and prop to a couple of kings – what was it exactly about Imre that made him leave? Why not stay and try to check the behavior he found objectionable? I’m using Kelson and Morgan and Conall as a comparison; Conall was pretty much a bad seed and wouldn’t have accepted guidance from such as Morgan, but I was still a little surprised at how quickly Morgan just backed away. Conall had no one to truly take his place as right hand, except perhaps for Arilan – and I don’t think he would have allowed Arilan in to a degree it would have been helpful. If I had written it Morgan probably would felt it necessary, in honor, to humbly offer his services to the new king/regent. Perhaps he didn’t want to incur a rebuff that would make it impossible to be useful later – but none of this was said. He just didn’t like Conall, had better things to do in looking for Kelson, and left without asking if he was wanted. Here, I would like to see the question addressed: mightn’t things have been different with an older and wiser man on hand for guidance? Cathan’s good (iirc), but he doesn’t have Camber’s experience.

Cathan’s presence at court raises no ill feelings between them, so while Camber does not want to be there himself, he seems to have no objections to his son taking on the role, although the son seems to be cut of much the same cloth as the father. I would think that if there had been Neroesque excesses in the court Camber would be quietly agitating to sever Cathan’s relationship to it, for the sake of Cathan’s family if nothing else, assuming Cathan was willing to stay and endure. Imre, the king, levied a massive tax against everybody, Deryni and human alike, to fund the construction of a snazzy new capital; his justifications aren’t given, but neither is any reason why a new capital is a terrible idea. A king is entitled to levy taxes (she said as devil’s advocate), and his people never like it; but what if the old capital is getting rundown, or overrun, or cramped, or simply has too much of the past Haldane rule about it? A king is entitled to make himself a new capital, if there are reasons for it. And hey, he’s the king – sometimes when there aren’t reasons for it.

Add to this a murder in a remotish village, the killing of a Deryni possibly because he was Deryni. Not good. That’s something that would need to be punished, no matter what. Rumors of a child being molested by the victim mitigate a little – but that would be cause to have the man dragged into a court of law, for legal punishment, or if vigilante action was to be taken I would expect the man to disappear one night. But the method of the murder wasn’t a simple stabbing in a dark alley, or even a little friendly torture session by the child’s family. This victim was hanged, drawn, and quartered. That’s … unusual. That’s a statement. I looked it up: in England it was purely a method of execution used in cases of high treason until its abolishment in 1814. It isn’t something one man could accomplish. This had to be at least five, I would think: they were likely not Deryni, while their victim was, so without the disabling drug merasha being involved simply capturing the man would take a few people. And even with merasha I can’t but think the logistics of this kind of killing would take five or six. Lookouts, cleanup, four horses to be managed and … washed after (unless horses weren’t used, though I thought they always were – apparently sometimes criminals were just cut apart); then, of course, the fun of distributing the body parts (and was there some message in that here? Isn’t there, usually? The four corners of the kingdom or some such? “Ho, there, messenger, what burden do you bear?” “Why, my errand is to deliver the left – wait, the right – let me check – the left leg of a traitor to the furthest southwestern corner of the land! Wanna see?”) There is unrest that Imre has had fifty hostages taken and will begin killing them unless and until the killers come forward. Which, given a medieval setting and the fact that the victim was a lord (never mind Deryni), is not all that unreasonable. They’ve tried to find the killers by the usual method, which in the then and there includes truth-reading anyone they can get their hands on, and found nothing. This isn’t the kind of thing that can be allowed to go unrecognized; in fact, I’m pretty sure upright medieval kings did much the same thing (she said, without any evidence whatsoever). Although, of course, those probably responsible are probably already resigned to the fact that their own lives are forfeit when they are discovered, and may sorrowfully write off the fifty as unavoidable (if unwitting and unwilling) sacrifices for the cause.

To the point I’d reached when I started writing this, he sounds like not a great king; possibly a very selfish king; not a king whose first interest is his people. Which does not mean he should be taken down in a coup. (As of chapter six he’s done some more heinous things… But I can’t help thinking of Nero and wondering – yes, but how is he as an overall ruler?)

Into this stew drops Rhys’s situation: an elderly patient who has come to be a friend confides to him on his deathbed that he is the last remaining member of the Haldanes, the royal family which was brutally ousted by the Deryni Festils almost 80 years ago. He’s dying, but he has a grandson, a legitimate heir to the old royal line. Do with that what you will. Rhys, a hitherto purposefully nonpolitical being, is thrown into a quandary: here he has potential dynamite. Somewhere, all unbeknownst to himself or anyone else but, briefly, Rhys (and then only Rhys and Joram), there is a forty-year-old monk with Haldane blood running in his veins. The next part of the test is a multi-part question: a) Is he still alive and can he be found? b) If he is found, should he be told anything other than that his grandfather is gone? c) If he is found, should any action be taken to restore him to the throne?

This last one is multi-part in itself: 1) Is he fit to rule, and who will be the judge of that? 2) Does he want to rule, and does it matter? If they decide to do this (which of course they will or there wouldn’t be a book) will they put him on the throne kicking and screaming if necessary, get him a wife (horrors!) and put him in a position (so to speak) where he has to get an heir? And how would that make him a better king than what they have? 3) What kind of solid justification is there for ousting the current, legally anointed, king – for committing all sorts of high treason and surely costing the lives of thousands in battle at least, and at worst thousands in battle plus the lives and families’ lives of every one of the people involved, and possibly of the inhabitants of the monastery where the uncrowned king lived all those years? (In 17th century England, during the Civil War, a Parliamentarian general said “We may beat the king 99 times, and yet he will be king still. If he beats us but once, we shall be hanged”.) His being selfish, greedy, and a bit of a spoiled brat tyrant, which is all that has been seen so far, is NOT justification for any good man to consider high treason. To the point I’d reached when I started writing this, he sounds like not a great king; possibly a very selfish king; not a king whose first interest is his people. Which does not mean he should be taken down in a coup. As of chapter six he’s done some more heinous things… But I can’t help thinking of Nero and wondering – yes, but how is he as an overall ruler? And … yes, but from what is said, as of when the quest for the uncrowned king started, Imre hadn’t committed any heinous acts… I think I’d be a lot happier if there had been more evidence of Imre being a bad king before that discussion. While I am glad that this bad king hasn’t (so far) followed the pattern so often seen in fantasy of the inhumanly evil, wicked, and unspeakably depraved bad king, I seem to recall that may come (incest, isn’t it?), it almost requires that for even considering a coup to be justified. There needs to be something more than “Father, we know your real reasons for leaving the court” that would excuse a character painted not as just a good man but the best of men sitting there with his son, daughter, and son-in-law-to-be discussing regicide. (Well, no one’s actually said “We need to kill the king” yet – but they’re looking for his legitimate replacement, and Imre’s going nowhere alive. The only place for a former king is in the grave – see The Quest for Saint Camber.) They were kind of light-hearted about the whole thing, too.

AND they didn’t even ward the room. Now, there’s no real reason they would have had to expect eavesdropping – but it seems like an unnecessary risk to me. What if there had been a servant or guest passing by who happened to overhear something about a discovered Haldane heir, and stood to listen (as who wouldn’t)? That could have been ugly.

All this aside – what a great idea for a High Adventure fantasy story. I love it: the ordinary man (somewhat) going about his ordinary business, tending to a patient who’s become a good, trusted and trusting friend and who is now succumbing to old age, and out of the blue having a huge (ginormous) secret dropped into his lap… and his life changes forever. It’s tempting to explore different avenues that the story could go down, what if’s and what about’s… and that, my children, is why it’s taken me half my life to bring my own book to even the point it’s reached. I’m far too good at haring off down new paths and alleyways.

This is a very interesting reread. Again, it’s going to be interesting wandering the past of the books I’ve just been reading – and it’s also interesting to see what I remember from all those years ago. The Chronicles rang bells on a regular basis; the Histories very strangely did not, to the point where I’m wondering if I ever did read them back when. I know I read the Camber books… and I also know I took a scunner against KK at some point, though I don’t know why. (Might have been that dream thing… which I will be big enough to admit carries a whiff of jealousy. Why does *she* get to be privy to transmissions from another world? *pout*)

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2 Responses to Deryni

  1. Dean Lappi says:

    A great blog entry. I too used to love the Deryni series when I was young. I remember thinking it was right up there with Lord of the Rings (when I was 12). I haven’t read it in 30 years, so I wonder how it will hold up today. I look forward to the reread though. Thanks again for the great blog post! Cheers, Dean

  2. stewartry says:

    Hi! Thanks! It was huge in my life, and I see why. I look forward to seeing your thoughts on it on FA!

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