Okay. It's been not quite a year since I wrote about King Javan's Year, my entry point into the Deryni universe and still the Deryni novel of my heart.
I've always been reluctant to read The Bastard Prince. I'm not sure if it's because I've always preferred the this era of the Deryni novels and this is where Katherine Kurtz brings the era to a close, or if it is't because I was so emotionally drained after King Javan's Year (and the four preceding volumes) that going once more into that breach is one novel too many. Also, it is a little jarring to go from Javan's story in the previous two novels to Rhys Michael. It's never been a statement on the quality of the novel for me, just a general reluctance.
I often describe The Bastard Prince as of the Deryni novels I've read the least, although I'm not sure that is entirely true. I've only read the second Kelson trilogy twice and I know I've read King Kelson's Bride and the Childe Morgan novels just once. The Kelson novels have never held the same appeal to me, so if I'm going back to read Deryni, I'm revisiting the old friends and the old horrors of this era of the Haldane restoration and the deryni purges. But, I don't go back to the sixth novel without re-reading the first five. The other novels were formative, this one was not.
It's been six years or so since the events of King Javan's Year and everything is still awful. Everything may be even more awful than that. Rhys Michael Haldane is king in name only. Alroy's former regents, having conspired to murder Javan, are now ruling Gwynedd in fact. To say that Rhys Michael and his wife, Michaela, are chafing under that presumption of authority would be a gross understatement. They know they are puppets, but they also know that open defiance is a death sentence. Producing heirs to the throne is a death sentence. Not producing heirs will result Michaela's rape in order to produce a presumptive heir, and then a death sentence. Everything is awful.
It is on the back of that awfulness that Torenth (the long standing rival kingdom to the East) has invaded, taking a border town and killing its lord. But, it is not just Torenth that invaded, it is a man named Marek, the son of the deryni king deposed by Camber and his cohort way back in Camber of Culdi. Marek has never ceased his claim to the throne of Gwynedd and this mini invasion is one that must be answered by the king, in person. The less awful bit here is that it relaxes (somewhat) the leash on Rhys Michael, but we (and Rhys Michael) are constantly reminded how tenuous that relaxed grip is.
We know from Deryni Rising that the authority and actual rulership of Gwynedd does eventually return to the Haldanes, and this would be a bleak novel indeed if there was no hope of that occurring here.
The thing is, The Bastard Prince is a bleak novel.
It's been a long, long time since I've read this book and I remembered that the crown of Gwynedd is freed and restored to Haldane rule. What I didn't remember is that Rhys Michael doesn't live to see it happen. I thought he was the one to restore the throne, but the infection from his hand that was wounded in battle with Marek eventually killed him without healing, sped along by the medicinal "bleeding" he was subjected to by the Custodes Fidei and the regents at the at the very end of his life.
Of course, it was the actions of Rhys Michael that made the recovery possible, the "codicil" to his will putting loyal men permanently on the regency council guiding his son Owain to his majority. It cost his life (maybe the bloodletting wasn't entirely medicinal and was perhaps punitive in nature), but it saved his children.
The Bastard Prince ends with a significant exhale as the evil (I don't use the word lightly) former regents are all dealt with, most end up immediately dead, and even though the Status of Ramos that caused such immediate persecution of the deryni are relaxed if not rescinded, and the harshest of the laws are eliminated (except, notably, the one dissallowing deryni in the priesthood, this does lead to an excellent later set story, "The Priesting of Arilan").
Throughout the Reading Deryni project, I've considered the nature and application of deryni magic and I find myself coming back to it again in my reading of The Bastard Prince. Throughout the six novels set in the "Camber Era" of the Haldane Restoration, the use of magic has been subtle, often with ritual and mysticism. Magic has been used to read the truth of words, to suborn the will of another with a touch, to ward against sound, to communicate without speech, to heal, and to travel through the use of magically constructed portals. Except, perhaps the ability to fast travel, the use and application of that magic is internal. The consequences are visible, but the action of that magic is not.
Some two hundred years further down the timeline of this world, in the era of King Kelson, there are epic magical duels using spoken (and rhyming) spells and the visual results are spectacular.
The Bastard Prince seems to begin to bridge that gap between the first five novels of this era against what we are first introduced to in Deryni Rising.
"Miklos stabbed a gloved forefinger at the ground behind Rhys Michael. Sudrey screamed as flame leaped up from the very ground and began to trace a curved fiery line around to the side and then behind Miklos, laying down a containing circle."
"Without further preamble, he raised his right fist and thrust it toward her with a muttered Word, opening out his fingers with a snap. The gesture launched a fist-sized ball of fire that roared toward her like an inferno, growing as it came"
"A Word of command conjured heavy cloud above the flames, weeping moisture that changed to steam as the fire below was quenched"
Not that I would ever recommend a reader begin reading Deryni with The Bastard Prince, but for readers who are now (at least) five novels deep into the series, the change in how magic is used is a bit jarring. Or maybe I've just spent too much time thinking about deryni magic and ethics and use. Regardless, I am quite happy that Kurtz did not reintroduce rhyming magic battles to this world.
The fire and blasts are a more much external use of magic, and I'm now wondering if and how magic is used in this world is a cultural thing. It is only in clashes with the Torenthi (Charissa, Marek) that we see that sort of battle magic. I can assume that since Torenth is ruled by deryni that overt displays of magic is culturally accepted and the Torenthi magic schools are teaching different magical arts. The Gwynedd magic schools were in various monastic traditions and focused on the more contemplative traditions we've seen across the previous five Camber-Era novels.
We only have glimpses of Torenth, but now I wonder about the wider world the novels never touch on. What is the Chinese analog in this world and how do they handle deryni magic and culture? What about African deryni? Peruvian? There's no answer to those questions, but I'm now I'm curious.
Speaking of the use of magic, but since I'd like to beat this horse one final time, I'm continually interesting in the slippery slope of the ethics of how deryni use their magic.
"It can be argued that since he didn't agree to the changed terms we're imposing, his death won't technically be suicide anymore. Call it an indirect execution if you prefer. Personally, I would as soon send his unrepentant soul straight to hell, b ut my office as a priest forbids indulgence in vengeance. I salve my conscience with the knowledge that at least he's going to have a chance to make some restitution before he dies - even if he's forced to do it"That is Bishop Niallan talking about Dimitri, a deryni agent of Torenth who voluntarily had a "death trigger" to prevent revealing his true loyalties, but who has been suborned by the Camberian Council on behalf of Gwynedd ad who now has his will forced to do the bidding of his new implanted orders and the death trigger altered to prevent *that* knowledge from getting out. The argument, I suppose, is that this is essentially war and the survival of a race dependent on a sympathetic Haldane regaining the crown in truth, but it is part of a continual pattern of how far the "good guys" will go to justify their actions. Their cause is just in opposing the murderous regents, but it is a continued example of exactly why many humans fear the deryni.
This is a point that I've hit on again and again throughout my reading of these six novels of the Deryni written by Katherine Kurtz, that though readers are rightly sympathetic towards the deryni and find the persecution of the deryni abhorrent, the magical actions of the deryni towards humans are often absolute violations. If you don't spend much time thinking about ethics and just enjoy those fleeting moments of our heroes getting the upper hand, it is so easy to slide past the implications. It is absolutely a matter of life or death for the deryni and the Haldanes, and it is absolutely wrong.
One final thing I would like to discuss, and there hasn't been space for it the previous Reading Deryni essays, is what the hell happens in the future? I know, that's a vague and misleading statement. We know what happens two hundred years in the future. Kelson becomes king and Katherine Kurtz writes seven books about Kelson. With her Childe Morgan trilogy, Kurtz takes a slight step back in time to the reigns of Kelson's grandfather and father.
What I want to know about is what happens in the immediate twenty years after Rhys Michael dies and Owain takes the throne as a four year old boy. One of my favorite things about this series is the inclusion of various appendices at the end of most of the books. There is a "Partial Lineage of the Haldane Kings" and "Partial Lineage of the MacRories" and those genealogies tell a story. They tell a story of Owain Haldane dying in the year 948 at the age of 24. That's young, and the early deaths of Alroy, Javan, and Rhys Michael suggest that dying young while king should be viewed with suspicion.
But then you look at the MacRorie family tree and something jumps out at you. Joram dies in 948 at age 70. Okay. His son Tieg, the healer, dies in 948 (age 34). His nephew Ansel dies in 948 (age 48). His cousin Camlin dies in 948 (age 42).
What happened in 948?
Besides the king, these are all members (formal or informal) of the Camberian Council. That is a council formed by Camber in exile in order "to prevent flagrant abuses and to discipline those we can't prevent" and it will be "Deryni sitting in judgment of Deryni" (quotes from Saint Camber). It's more than suspicious that so many of these characters died in the same year, there's a story in those genealogies and it is one that I have been waiting more than twenty five years to be told. Unless Katherine Kurtz is working on that 948 novel now, I don't expect to ever get it.
Between a 948 novel and an Orin and Jodotha novel, there are so many questions raised both in the genealogies and in tantalizing hints in the novels themselves. After Owain dies, his brother Uthyr reigns for more than thirty years and, presumably, offers an era of relative stability. But Uthyr's three sons all die relatively young and have short reigns of three years, two years and nine years. What happened then? Tragically, Michaela (Rhys Michael's queen and regent mother of Owain) buries both of her sons and two of her grandchildren.
Even though the actual content of these six Deryni novels have been increasingly unpleasant, it has been a delight and a joy for me to revisit this series. I am continually waiting for Katherine Kurtz to be named a SFWA Damon Knight Grand Master and / or receive a Lifetime Achievement from World Fantasy. Either would be more than well earned and well deserved. One day?
Thank you for going on this journey for me, hopefully it has been as much fun for all of you as it has for me. I know there are ten deryni novels I haven't included in this re-read, plus two short story collection (one written by Kurtz, one edited by the author), an encyclopedia, and a book about the working of the deryni magic that I suddenly wonder if I should look at just to answer some of those questions I have about the differences in how magic has been used in this series; but I just don't see another round of essays happening. Never say never, but maybe don't hold your breath for very long.
Read Katherine Kurtz. Read Deryni.
POSTED BY: Joe Sherry - Co-editor of Nerds of a Feather, 2017 & 2018 Hugo Award Finalist for Best Fanzine. Minnesotan.