I loved Katherine Kurtz’ Deryni books when I first read them back in the seventies. Alaric Morgan and Duncan McLain rediscover ancient magics! There’s a secret council! A young man finds he has secret powers! The books were great fun. In this second series, about Camber of Culdi, I liked going back to learn what the title character was really like. I recall being sorry there wasn’t more about magic, but still – Camber of Culdi! Sadly, by the time the third trilogy came out, the magic was gone – almost literally. The books had devolved into purely fantasy-political stories. I kept reading, but eventually, when a book (I think King Kelson’s Bride) came out in which nothing happened, I mostly gave up. Still, I remember liking the first two trilogies a lot, so I picked up this reissue of Camber of Culdi looking forward to re-reading an old favorite.
A long time back, while I was still enjoying the Deryni series, I read Ursula Le Guin’s essay From Elfland to Poughkeepsie, in which she cruelly points out the essentially political, non-fantasy nature of the books. I saw her point, and I dislike fictional politics, but I liked these books anyway.
On this re-read, Le Guin’s views came sharply back into focus. Counter to my memory, there’s almost no magic in this book. Instead, it is a heavily political story about dynastic succession, with religious trappings and a hint of magic here and there for flavor. It’s well written, but almost all of the writing is about things I don’t care about. While I recalled Kurtz as being focused on religion, a lot of the book is what these days people would likely call ecclesiastical porn – lots of details of vestments and monasteries and priestly devotion; certainly far more than there is about magic.
[some mild spoilers below]
The books are also heavily male-centric. There are a few females involved – the evil temptress, the innocent maiden, the sympathetic friend. Granted, the books are a bit dated, but they’re from the 70s, not the 30s. It’s hard to set aside “if we do not support our men in their good works, what hope is there for any of us”. And, of course, it’s worse to kill women than men. Yes, it’s a vaguely historical fantasy, but if we can have magic powers, why not independent women? Only in the bonus story – one of the best parts of the book – is there a woman who really acts for herself. The implicit condemnation of gays is less frequent, but no more palatable. That’s not even touching the devoted servants who will do anything for their kind masters.
The bad guys are caricatures, and not very credible. Camber’s son is very close to the cruel tyrant, but there’s never any indication of why he would be – the guy is a cartoon villain, while the son is good and noble.
The book is of two minds. On the one hand, the plot machinations are to depose Deryni in favor of humans. On the other, it’s clear that Deryni are special. While it’s a given of the series that Deryni have special powers, Kurtz also seems to extend their special place to other issues – for example, “a thoroughness possible only for Deryni”, which doesn’t seem explained by their standard powers. This special place is nowhere more clear than in dealing with Cinhil – the reluctant pretender. Without really any qualms, his ‘friend’ and confidante waits until he trusts her, then messes with his volition – and we’re meant to feel good about it.
All in all, a vastly disappointing return to the magic of yesteryear. I came into this book expecting to love it almost as much as I had before. Instead, I was mostly bored. I’d been looking forward to re-reading the first two Deryni trilogies. Now I’m a little worried about going back even to the first one.
If you want an alternate history stuffed with the ecclesiastical trappings, political machinations, and just the faintest bit of magic, this is for you. If you want a true fantasy, you may want to look elsewhere.