1970’s Deryni Rising is the first book of Katherine Kurtz’s historical fantasy trilogy, Chronicles of The Deryni. There are five Deryni trilogies to date. Although there is a more recent edition of this book available1, this is a review of the original version.
Gwynedd is one of the Eleven Kingdoms, a collection of feudal states entangled by history and proximity. As the novel opens, Gwynedd finds itself in a succession crisis when wise King Brion Haldane dies. Brion has an acknowledged heir, Prince Kelson. But what should be an uneventful succession faces several challengers. The most dangerous of them is Lady Charissa, the dark sorceress who covertly murdered Brion.
In addition to the usual mediaeval warfare, political squabbling, and religious strife, the political situation is complicated by the presence of the Deryni, a race whose members command impressive magic denied to non-Deryni. A failed attempt by Deryni lords to subjugate the region left Deryni a despised minority.
Duke Alaric Morgan, Brion’s most trusted friend and servant, is openly half-Deryni. This makes Morgan a figure of great suspicion, particularly in the eyes of Brion’s devout wife, Queen Jehana. Accordingly, Jehana does her best to judicially murder Morgan; this should remove his corrupting influence from the court. She is foiled by her son Kelson’s quick thinking and political smarts.
Too bad that Jehana isn’t at all worried about the Deryni who will be the main problem for the realm: Lady Charissa, Duchess of Tolan, the Shadowed One. Lady Charissa never forgave Brion for killing her father in a magical duel. Assisted by Lord Ian Howell, she has a cunning plan to take Gwynedd for her own. Brion’s murder was only the first step.
Morgan, with his command of Deryni magic, could threaten Charissa’s cunning plans. He must be removed! Permanently! Charissa schemes to frame Morgan for murder. She hopes that Gwynedd itself will remove him, leaving her free to take down Kelson.
But Kelson might be able to fight back. It seems that Haldanes, though non-Deryni, can wield magic too. One Haldane a generation can learn to use magic. King Brion held that power in his generation. He alone knew the secret ritual that could allow Kelson to become the Haldane-magic-wielder.
If only Brion had taught Kelson the ritual.
The Eleven Kingdoms are based loosely on Great Britain (some characters have Irish accents!) and Central Europe. The setting isn’t quite a secondary universe; it’s Ruritania plus magic.
It’s the official line that the Haldanes are totally mundane humans who have inherited a totally non-Deryni knack for magic. Perhaps that’s true. I should just note that many Deryni have elected to pass as mundane and have intermarried with mundanes. Some descendants of these unions have no idea they have Deryni kin. Others, like Queen Jehana, are determined to suppress that part of their heritage. I’m not saying the Haldanes are Deryni — although obviously Jehana’s son Kelson is part Deryni because his mother is. I’m not saying that the official line is a barefaced lie. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it were.
Deryni Rising was the nineteenth volume of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy series. Predating as it does Lester del Rey’s efforts to find a sure-selling formula for best-selling fantasy, Deryni Rising does feel a tad antique. In many ways it’s quite unlike the fantasy works that would flood markets in about seven years. For one thing, the crisis that drives the plot is a crisis for only one of the Eleven Kingdoms. The world itself is not at stake.
- Charissa, the Big Bad2, is motivated not by Evil! Pure and simple from the Eighth Dimension!!!! but by comprehensible reasons. She’s angry that Brion killed her father; she would also like to be a queen.
- While many mundanes think Deryni are intrinsically evil, it’s clear that Deryni run the gamut from splendid persons to total asshats, just like every other kind of human. They aren’t obligately evil magical Orcs or good elves.
In other news: it’s interesting that there are only two women of note in the book, one of whom is a power-mad villain and the other a religious fanatic. I would have thought that a woman writer would have broadened the female cast. I don’t remember much about the other Deryni books, but there are probably some appealing female characters there. Please advise in comments 😉
By modern standards, the novel is fairly short (271 pages in the second printing of the original mass market paperback edition). The plots moves briskly, racing through its convolutions without much space for purposeless flourishes. The characters are, on the whole, very direct; they are who they appear to be and in case of the villains, they are willing to explain just who they are in case the reader missed it.
Deryni Rising is an interesting example of a fantasy mode now fallen somewhat out of fashion. It’s closer in feel to Arthurian stories or perhaps Robin Hood tales than to works like Lord of the Rings. Or later works such as A Multivolume Tale about an Existential Threat Featuring A Diverse Party of Bickering Adventurers and the Magical Trinket of Great Plottiness orAn Entirely Different Multivolume Tale about an Existential Threat Featuring A Diverse Party of Bickering Adventurers and the Magical Trinket of Great Plottiness.
I don’t regret revisiting this book. In fact, I snapped up the other two books in the series from my friendly neighborhood bookstore, so reviews of the whole trilogy may be forthcoming.
1: For some reason, Amazons of every national flavour seemed reluctant to admit that there was a recent edition of this book. I had to head to Ace to find appropriate links. In the case of the UK, to which Ace does not link, a direct search didn’t turn up the book in hardcopy, but there was a useful link for the hardcopy hanging from the entry for the audiobook.
2: It could be argued that the real Big Bad in this setting is a feudal system shored up by an established church. Note that Charissa’s scheme is based on murderous violence; if she prevails, she’s legitimate. If she’d had to deal with a Westminster-style parliament, with all the checks and balances that entails, she’d have been reduced to bribing politicians or buying up the Eleven Kingdom’s newspapers. That would have taken her at least another chapter.