When I was a young kid there was an amazing used bookstore in town. The bookstore smelled of used books, books were stacked waist high in spots, and the shelves were so close together, and so tall that to see the top shelf, you had to press your back against the next shelf and crane your head way back. Books were a dollar a piece, and if you brought books to trade you could get store credit, so you didn’t have to pay anything at all. The books were loosely organized by genre, but not by author, which encouraged browsing. You could spend hours in there looking for treasures. Assuming you weren’t claustrophobic.
One day I hit the jackpot. An entire series of fantasy novels by Katherine Kurtz. I remember they had a wizard rubber stamped on the top of each book, and I bought the entire series. They were about the struggles between a race of magical beings called the Deryni and the humans that ruled the land of Gwynedd. Everyone in the land worships God and the church is modeled on the Catholic church.
I recently acquired the series again in ebook form, and am taking the time to reacquaint myself with the books. I’m happy to say they are as good as when I read them as a teenager. Now, thanks to the internet, I’m reading them in chronological order, starting with the book I’m reviewing here, Camber of Culdi.
The feel of these books is reminiscent of 10th and 12th century England. The books are careful not to portray either the humans or the Deryni as good or evil, but rather “human” (if you’ll allow the stretching of that term to cover a non-human race) with foibles and prejudices of their own. The Camber trilogy is written from the viewpoint of Camber, and portrays him as a hero, but he is flawed and makes mistakes. This trilogy is in the vein of a prequel, Camber is a saint (book two in the trilogy deals with him becoming a saint, that’s not a spoiler either, the title is literally Saint Camber), and a major part of Deryni history.
No, not this kind of prequel.
Camber is the Earl of Culdi, a Deryni, and a scholar. His daughter Evaine spends time with Camber studying old scrolls. His son Joram is a priest in the Order of Saint Michael, a fighting order. His future son-in-law Rhys is a Healer, a specific Calling of the Deryni that deals in healing wounds with magic.
Minor spoilers for the first part of the book follow.
Some time before the book starts there was a coup and the members of the royal Haldane family were slain, and replaced with a Deryni upstart.
Not this Haldane.
The current king, Imre is cruel and vain. After the murder of a Deryni on Camber’s land, he rounds up fifty peasants, and unless they can name the murderer they’ll all be hanged, according to Deryni law.
Rhys discovers when he spends time with a dying old man that he spent many hours healing, that this old man is the sole descendent of the Haldane family. He Truth-Reads the man, using a Deryni technique to view the dying mans memory of the coup, and discovers that the man is telling the truth. Daniel, as the old man is known now, has a living grandson, Benedictus, a monk in a cloistered order of the church. If he’s still alive there’s a possibility that they can overthrow Imre and restore the Haldane line to the throne.
After discussing this possibility with Camber, Evaine, and Joram, the decision is reached to try to find this monk and restore him to the throne.
The book does an excellent job at dealing with the blending of church and magic. Everyone in the book is Christian, without all the variations that make Earth Christianity so confusing. The magic is well researched, and very pagan (think Wicca type magic) in nature. Ms. Kurtz obviously researched both the Catholic church and pagan magick before writing these books. I didn’t realize this when I read them as a teenager, I realized she researched the church, because I was familiar with Christianity in general, and assumed she got the specifics of Catholicism correct.
It wasn’t until this reading that I realized that she got the magic right too. I spent some time studying magick and Wicca as I thought of converting at one point, so I have a very basic understanding of rituals and magick, her rituals are flavored with a Christian form of magick (in calling the four corners, she uses archangels). And she uses catholic thuribles to seal the circle instead of pagan ritual implements. It’s seamless and very well done.
Because the magic is not witchcraft, it’s inherent to the race of Deryni there’s no conflict between Christianity and the magic (the verse about not suffering a witch to live). It’s very clever on Kurtz’s part.
The books are not exciting, but they are well researched, well written, and there is plenty to keep your attention if you enjoy politics, religion, and statecraft, with a little magic thrown in for good measure.