1972’s Deryni Checkmate is the second volume of Katherine Kurtz’s Ruritanian historical fantasy series, The Chronicles of the Deryni.
AD 1121: Having secured his rightful place on the throne of the Kingdom of Gwynedd, one might think that all of young King Kelson Haldane’s problems are over. They are just starting.
The Eleven Kingdoms (of which Gwynedd is one) have a healthy sense of competition. Neighboring Kingdom of Torenth is preparing to invade Gwynedd. And that’s not the worst problem facing the King and his allies.
Kelson gained his victory thanks to Deryni magic. Because of the Deryni Dictatorship in previous centuries, Deryni magic is viewed with enormous suspicion by non-Deryni, those who are unaware they are Deryni, and those who wish they were not Deryni. Not to mention the church, which forbids Deryni magic and regards all Deryni with deep distrust.
Fanatically anti-Deryni Archbishop Loris fires off an official communique demanding that Kelson’s closest ally, Alaric Morgan, the Deryni Duke of Corwyn, recant his Deryni magi and retire to a life of penance. Additionally, Morgan’s cousin Monsignor Duncan McLain must submit to a trial for his part in the magical battle during Kelson’s coronation. If Alaric Morgan and his cousin do not submit to the church, Loris threatens to put Morgan’s duchy under interdict, cutting off all of its habitants from religious services.
Thanks to a sympathizers within Loris’ office, Kelson, Morgan, and Duncan are not blindsided by this move. That’s of limited use: Loris can wield a lot of power. As well, he has an ally in Warin de Grey, a rebel lord who hopes to overthrow Morgan. An interdict might swing support to de Grey1.
No situation is so bad that some well-meaning idiot cannot make it much worse. Self-centered architect Rimmell is hopelessly infatuated with Morgan’s sister Bronwyn. Bronwyn is in love with her fiancé Kevin. Determined to win Bronwyn at any cost, Rimmell purchases a magical trinket he hopes will compel Bronwyn to love him. The results are a tragic distraction that comes at the very worst time for Kelson, Morgan, and Duncan.
Loris has problems of his own. His bold action triggers something no church wants: an open schism between ecclesiastical factions. It seems the Eleven Kingdoms are to be subject to factional strife at all possible levels.
Why are so many architects evil?
I choose to think of this setting as Fantasy Doggerland, although that may not be what the author intended. The edition I have is the February 1976 MMPB edition, whose map, I am sad to say, could be easier to read. There are better maps available online, some for a very reasonable price.
The first volume offered limited roles for women: deluded bigot and grasping harridan. This volume expands that to include witch-women with conveniently flexible moral senses (there’s not much difference between a love amulet and roofies) and a Woman in a Refrigerator. Or, given the technological base at the time, a Woman in an Ice House.
Checkmate was nominated for both the 1973 Mythopoeic Fantasy Award and the 1973 Locus. An actual win would not come Kurtz’s way until she won the coveted Balrog Award for Camber the Heretic in 1982.
Checkmate may have lost reader support thanks to its ending, a cliff-hanger. It also featured faux-archaic prose and limited characterization. It’s more fairy tale than it is literary novel … as were many fantasy novels of that vintage.
It’s also fairy-tale-ish in its limited setting. Its dynastic conflicts will affect only Gwynedd and possibly Torenth. The theological spat could theoretically reach Rome (and won’t the Pope be happy to hear that an overreaching cleric has managed to cleave the Eleven Kingdom’s church in two?). There are no epic villains, only bigots and grasping aristocrats, and the consequences for the world outside the Eleven Kingdoms are probably quite minimal. Nevertheless, it’s enough matter for a trilogy.
The book is, however, modern in that it lacks a proper ending. It was only a decade later that never-ending series became acceptable, even popular.
Readers interested in the mass market fantasy of a bygone era may find this of interest. Whereas the first volume, Deryni Rising, can be read as a stand-alone, this should not be. Try to snag a copy of High Deryni as well.
1: de Grey has a healing touch, which may mean he is blessed by God but more likely means he’s part or all Deryni. That does not mean he understands the nature of his gift. The fact he uses it out in the open strongly suggests he has no idea healing is a rare Deryni knack.