Camber of Culdi was originally published in 1976, following on the heels of the thrilling exploits of the young King Kelson Haldane in The Chronicles of the Deryni trilogy. In Deryni chronologically terms, however, this novel is the oldest, going back in time to shed light on the mysterious Saint Camber, who is reviled and revered in equal measure by the populous of the Kingdom of Gwynedd in Kelson’s time. And here readers come face-to-face with this Deryni legend.
The ruler of Gweynedd at this time in Camber’s life is the young Imre; his ancestor Festil I, the Conqueror, having brutally overthrown the human kings centuries before, seizing power for the Deryni race. These very human-like people living along side the population, normal in every way except in their extraordinary mental powers which are rumored to be magic. And while the Deryni overlordship of the land has not been all bad, it has taken a decidedly downward turn upon the ascension of Imre, who is a horrible racist (He views humans as nothing more than livestock to be worked, taxed, and killed as needed.) and more than a little insane. These qualities having caused Camber MacRorie, Earl of Culdi, to retire from court; his duties to the crown passed to his eldest son, Cathan, who has been fast friends with Imre since childhood.
This self-imposed retirement of the Earl seems to be for the best. The quiet life suiting him, allowing Camber to spend his days on ecclesiastical and historical study as well as family time: his daughter Evaine mainly, though he is close with his sons Cathan and Joram too. The greater goings-on of the kingdom still of interest to him, but his belief that younger men should guide the king into more prudent rulership. But then two events occur simultaneously: Imre decreeing that innocent humans must die in punishment for the murder of a Deryni, and an elderly human on his deathbed passing along a deadly secret to Camber’s son-in-law Rhys Thuryn. These unrelated events setting off a chain reaction which forces Camber of Culdi to contemplate betraying his ruling monarch and, perhaps, the Deryni race itself!
Having read this (and the other Deryni novels) as a teenager growing up in the 1980s, picking up Camber of Culdi again after all these years was both a welcome return to a childhood haunt and a trepidatious homecoming for an older, more cynical me. And, after finishing my re-read, I have to admit being both pleased and disappointed with the novel, though I definitely feel more of the former rather than the latter.
On the pleased side, I have to point to the wonderful world of the Deryni, which I still found as engrossing and as entertaining as it was decades ago. This fantasy version of medieval Europe filled with royal houses, political machinations, and the unique Deryni. What set it apart from other series is Katherine Kurtz’s wholesale inclusion of the Catholic Church in her story; medieval Christianity fully in place with Jesus Christ having died on the cross, his followers having spread across the world, monasteries and militant orders dotting the landscape, and the learned quoting Latin Psalms. This inclusion of religion allowing the author to capture the true nature of this historical setting, to show the clash of secular and religious powers, and to juxtapose the dual nature of devotedly religious people committing horrible deeds in the name of secular power.
On the disappointed side, I have to acknowledge this group of characters were a bit of a letdown for me (though, to be completely honest, I never loved them as much as I did Kelson, Morgan, and company). Camber always seemed more a saint than a real person. His children Cathan, Joram, and Evaine (as well as other confidantes like Rhys) had brief flashes of personality, but never received a real opportunity to grow into anyone truly special. King Imre and other “bad guys” were penned as fairly one dimensional creatures, easily labeled as the “insane tyrant”, “the “evil temptress”, or the “scheming liar.” And there was a complete absence of female main characters, though that might be a result of the time period when the book was first published more than anything else.
Overall, Camber of Culdi is a fine fantasy read filled with political scheming, dynastic intrigue, and a touch of magic, set in a wonderfully developed faux-medieval Europe with a fully realized Catholic Church. For longtime lovers of the Deryni novels, it will be a joyful return to a familiar home, replete with iconic characters and an easily followed tale told in Katherine Kurtz memorable style. To those new to the series, I would encourage them to read the first trilogy, The Chronicles of the Deryni, before delving in here, because the revelations in this book could ruin very important plot elements there.
I received this book from the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review. I’d like to thank them for allowing me to receive this review copy and inform everyone that the review you have read is my opinion alone.