The King’s Deryni: A masterful conveyance of a medieval world

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe King's Deryni by Katherine Kurtz epic fantasy book reviewsThe King’s Deryni by Katherine Kurtz

I first encountered Katherine Kurtz’s DERYNI series back in high school with Deryni Rising, the first of her more than dozen novels in the long-running series. The newest entry, The King’s Deryni, is the third in the CHILDE MORGAN sub-series, and it brings her original readers full circle, since it ends just a few years before Deryni Rising begins. As with any series of this length, the quality of each book, and the degree to which it engages/compels varies, and honestly, this sub-series is not as strong as several of the others. In fact, I had a lot of mixed feelings about The King’s Deryni, but despite the novel’s weaknesses, Kurtz’s smooth writing style and masterful conveyance of a medieval world of ritual remains a reliable constant.

Before I get to the summary, just a note on spoilers and reading order. Kurtz herself recommends reading them publication order (thus beginning with Deryni Rising), and that would be my own advice as well, though I can see how one might make an argument for reading them in chronological order, beginning with Camber of Culdi. In any case, this is not the book/sub-series to jump into the series with. That being the case, I’m going to assume you’re familiar with the general world and events, and thus there may be some spoilers (though I’ll avoid major ones).

In The King’s Deryni, young King Brion has come into his own as king and the focus now turns to seven-year-old Alaric Morgan, destined to become the King’s adviser and guardian, a more powerful one than most thanks to the Deryni heritage that will give him magical powers. The novel covers a span of seven years, over which we watch as Alaric matures in a multitude of ways — as a young man, as a person of some political importance (both as an eventual advisor to the king and also as heir to one of the four dukedoms in the kingdom), as a Deryni discovering bit by bit what powers he has and how to wield them, and as an eventual knight (we first see him a little before he becomes a page). Meanwhile, Brion has to consolidate his power even as his kingdom is threatened by pretenders to the throne from its earlier occupants and potentially hostile neighbors. Not all dangers come from within though. He also must deal with rebellious cantons, the loss of many knights and nobles of the old generation, a rise in anti-Deryni sentiment, a more and more independent and antagonistic clergy, and eventually a wife whom he will not see.

Usually, I start with what I liked in a review, but I’m going to switch things up for this one and begin with the book’s weaknesses. One is a general issue I’ve had with this entire sub-series, and that is because it leads so directly up to the events described in the original trilogy, it lacks any real sense of urgency or suspense. As a reader, I know what happens with Brion and Morgan and many of these other characters, I know just how much a threat this or that country or this or that person really is, because this is all “history” for me. Now, granted, if you read these novels in chronological order, this will not be an issue. But there are two problems with that. One is that, as mentioned, the author herself recommends that you come to this trilogy having already read the original. And two, because Kurtz is filling in historical gaps, because she is constrained by events she has already laid down, the action as it is has a bit of a perfunctory nature to it; it feels more like a roadmap than an engaging novel as she does what she needs to get us to where we’ve already been:  kill of this person here, marry that person there, set up this reason for vengeance here, etc. The author writing this as history, in other words, creates a different problem than an audience reading this as history. This was a problem in the first two books and here as well.

Another problem is really, not a lot happens here beyond setting us up for the original trilogy. There is a lot of riding to and fro, a lot of things that happen when time passes (old people die, young people grow up), a lot (and I mean a lot) of rituals. I lost track of just how many becoming a page, becoming a baron, becoming a knight, becoming a squire, becoming a husband, rituals there were, though at one point we were given three in the span of 20 pages, complete with slowly intoned oaths, solemn laying on of swords and hands, and detailed descriptions of the requisite apparel. Now, nobody does medieval ritual like Kurtz, and there is no doubt the vivid conveyance of said detail greatly adds to the sense of this as a fully realized world, but I have to admit my eyes began to glaze over a bit by the fifth or sixth or twelfth one. In that same vein, it didn’t take all that long before my brain just sort of turned off the multitude of names, titles, and relations in the book (sometimes it is a multitude of all for a single person), as in this paragraph:

Godwin Godreddson was the second son of Captain Godredd Colbertson, an officer of the Marly heavy cavalry… The third and final young man… was Innis de Pirek — or Innis Pirek-Haldane… for his family was descended from a distant Haldane cousin, though young Innis had elected to put aside that part of his name… His elder brother, knighted several years before, still used the name — Sir Michael Pirek-Haldane — and their father, Sir Quentin Pirek-Haldane, was the Earl of Carthane. Earl Quentin had made the long ride to Rhemuth for his young sons knighting.

With the amount of ritual, genealogy, and small bore events, I’d have to say the book did not deserve its 500 pages in terms of the action that occurred in those pages.

Finally, and most nagging throughout, was the, to me, wholly implausible precociousness of Alaric. Even beyond his being incredibly good at whatever he turned his hand to (beating boys several years older in training exercises, beating adults in a chess-like game, etc.), his dialogue and interior monologue never felt in sync with his actual age—when he was seven he sounded like he was a young teen, when he was twelve he sounded like he was a full adult, an experienced, highly educated, polished one at that. At times his reactions were a match for his age (though not always), but every time he spoke or thought (and it was about as literally close to “every time” as possible), I was momentarily pulled out of the book because I just couldn’t accept that level of sophistication from that particular age.

So, annoyingly unrealistic dialogue/monologue, overly long, too much ritual, not much happening, somewhat flat plot. I must have been miserable, right?  Nope. I was annoyed (writing several times “doesn’t sound like a kid!” in the margins or hoping just once the king might slip and slice off someone’s ear in yet another knighting). And yes, I was never reading to find out what happened next; I had a definite sense that not much was happening and that I was moving along from one death or one marriage or one ceremony to another. But damned if Kurtz’s effortless prose, detailed world building, sense of atmosphere, and ability to wholly convey a sense of the day to day domestic didn’t just keep me sailing smoothly along turning one page after the other until I had read the whole thing in just two sittings. She’s that good. In many ways it reminded me of Robin Hobb, who can suck you right in and make you fall in love with a novel where next to nothing really happens. In Hobb’s case, you don’t really notice (at least I don’t) that nothing is happening as you’re reading—you’re just reveling in the quiet nature of it all—so I don’t think Kurtz pulled it off to the same degree. I definitely noticed, as mentioned. But I still enjoyed the experience despite the above problems. She does a wonderful job in creating rich characters and then giving us lovely moments between them.

So what’s the recommendation for the The King’s Deryni and the CHILDE MORGAN trilogy? If you began as I did with the original trilogy, then you’ll probably want to meet the younger Brion and Morgan and Duncan, even if you don’t really need to know how all the actual events of the original trilogy actually come about and even if many of the moments will feel familiar. This would be (at this point at least) the last in the entire series, so you may as well complete it. But if you’re coming to this book/trilogy having read the series in chronological order, you could easily skip CHILDE MORGAN entirely and move right from THE HEIRS OF SAINT CAMBER to the original DERYNI CHRONICLES trilogy and on into the sequels. I don’t think you’re missing out on anything by doing so, but I think what I’d suggest instead is skipping it to go onto the original trilogy and its sequels, then come back to CHILDE MORGAN and fill in the gaps.


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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2 comments

  1. This has just come out on audio, also.

    Click to listen to a sample at Amazon:

  2. Sandra /

    I fully agree with your review. In my opinion, the worst “He’s eleven!” Is when Alaric loses his virginity at eleven with a whole court of teenage and adult women drooling over him. Furthermore, the fact that 15-year old girls are deemed to young to marry carries some disturbing paedophiliac implications.
    The book would definitely need some editing. In the end, I just started to jump paragraphs.

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