Celebrating the Unpopular Arts

Classic Fantasy Worth Reading: The Deryni Series by Katherine Kurtz

Deryni Rising Katherine Kurtz
The well-worn copy of my first Deryni book, Deryni Rising by Katherine Kurtz. photo copyright Corrina Lawson

Wow, George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire has nothing on the Deryni series by Katherine Kurtz when it comes to killing off characters.

That was the first thought that popped into my head upon finishing a recent re-read of Kurtz’s classic series.

My second thought was that, unlike the Julian May series I’ve written about, Kurtz’s body of work holds up very well, even though the first book in this series, Deryni Rising, was published in 1970.

I cannot speak for whether the Deryni series, which first began in 1970, influenced GRRM but there are some similarities in the overall works:

  • They’re centered on a medieval-style fantasy kingdom that loosely resembles England, Scotland, and Wales.
  • They both intensely delve into the brutal politics of the kingdom.
  • An intensive faux history of almost 1,000 years (or more) has been developed.
  • Magic is real.
  • Kurtz’s series has stories set 120 years apart. GRRM, of course, has his short stories of Westeros set about 100 years before A Song of Ice and Fire. 

There is one main difference: tone and authorial voice.

GRRM’s works, for good or ill, are focused on the morally grey. His work questions whether the ends do justify the means and whether anyone can come out of such choices with their honor (whatever that is) intact. The best outcome seems to be survival. That’s what makes them interesting but also difficult to read, as they sometimes dive down too deep into the grimdark.

Kurtz’s books feature as much death and destruction but the best outcome is hope. Things are improving for the present generation of characters. Her main characters, for the most part, are trying to live moral lives. King Kelson, only 14 when the series begins, desires intensely to be a good and wise king, and overturn the mistakes of the past.

This difference in tone is why I prefer the Deryni series.

Books of the Deryni Series:

Chronicles of the Deryni: Deryni Rising, Deryni Checkmate, High Deryni

The Legends of Camber of Culdi: Camber of Culdi, Saint Camber, and Camber the Heretic.

Histories of King Kelson: The Bishop’s Heir, The King’s Justice, The Quest for Saint Camber.

The Heirs of St. Camber: The Harrowing of Gwynedd, King Javan’s Year, The Bastard Prince.

There is one other series, Childe Morgan. I enjoy it but it contains a great deal of backstory and the pacing is slower than the previous stories. King Kelson’s story is wrapped up in a stand-alone book called King Kelson’s Bride. There are two anthologies of short stories, Deryni Archives and Deryni Tales, and two companion works: Deryni Magic focused on the structure of magic, and the Codex Deryianus, essentially a dictionary of people and places.

What Are the Deryni?

The Deryni are humans endowed with magical abilities, many of which are similar to telepathic and telekinetic abilities. They are feared and hated because they can overwhelm the will of ordinary humans and control them, and their magic is little understood, as they don’t share it with regular humans.

In essence, the Deryni are a metaphor for prejudice against those who are different. However, in the stories, they’re people with extraordinary abilities who can choose to use them for good or ill.  The Deryni characters in the books range from saint-like to outright evil and everything in between. The ongoing societal debate is whether the Deryni are inherently evil, as is taught especially by the Church.

The Premise of the Deryni Series

The primary setting is Gwynedd, a kingdom roughly based on medieval England, Scotland, and Wales. Countries surrounding this kingdom somewhat represent Western Europe, Eastern Europe, and the Middle East. The series takes place in two main times: the reign of the latest king in the Haldane dynasty, teenage Kelson; and approximately two hundred years previous, during the time period when the Deryni conquerers of Gwynedd, the Festils, are overthrown by the last heir of the human Haldanes, albeit with the help of Deryni allies, including Earl Camber of Culdi, later Saint Camber, later declared a Deryni heretic by the humans who seize control of the kingdom’s Church.

The restored Haldane king, Cinhil, also possesses magic, a fact that troubles him and leads him to be blind to the faults of his human allies. This causes the terrible persecution of the Deryni during the regencies of his young sons. At the end of this time period, many of the main characters die, including three kings, and numerous point-of-view characters, Some of their ends are gruesome and horrific. Eventually, the evil regents are overcome but the existence of Deryni in society, especially openly, remains shaky.

Forward to King Kelson’s reign, which is when the first published book in the Deryni series, Deryni Rising, begins. Kelson’s father, King Brion, is slain by magic, and only by undergoing a ritual the night before his coronation can Kelson gain the magical Haldane abilities to battle and defeat his father’s murderer. To do this, he needs Deryni allies, and that’s where our two main characters of the original trilogy, Alaric Morgan, the Deryni Duke of Corwyn, and Father Duncan McClain, his secret Deryni cousin, enter the tale. Eventually, Kelson becomes an open proponent of overturning the laws restricting Deryni from having full legal rights, including those that bar them from the priesthood and the Church. (Duncan, according to the law of the land, should never have followed his calling to be a priest.)

The second series in this time period, The Histories of King Kelson follow the young king as he grows into manhood and confronts a threat to his rule in rebellious Meara, whose pretender Princess has become a haven for the anti-Deryni factions. Kelson also confronts a threat much closer to home as a jealous cousin attempts to steal his kingdom.

This series and the solo follow-up book, King Kelson’s Bride, leave the readers with a Gwynedd moving toward reconciliation between humans and Deryni. The death toll is still fairly high, however, starting with the murder of King Brion, the death of numerous supporting characters, and a shocking wedding murder.

Religion in the Deryni Series

In Kurtz’s world, the main religion in Gwynedd is directly based on Christianity. Christ appeared in this world, which is a very rough analog to medieval Europe and England. There is no pope. Gwynedd’s Church is independent but the forms of worship are Catholic and priests are celibate.

All this might make one think these are Christian books but that’s not so. Those who claim to be religious, including priests, are portrayed as both good and evil. Several of the main heroes are priests. Several of the main villains are also priests. All claim to have a true vocation and calling to serve God. Those with evil intentions subvert that, of course, killing those who don’t fit their definition of ‘Godly,’ which may sound like a familiar rationalization to the modern ear.

There are other religions in this storyverse and other religious traditions. I’d characterize the stories as a whole as spiritual. The magical rituals in the books tend to call on saints or the powers of earth, air, fire, and water.  Deryni Magic is an entire book about the rituals developed by the Deryni to help center and focus their powers. One of my favorite magics is the transfer portals. They are all connected to each other, to various degrees, thus enabling instantaneous travel. There are even different types, including trap portals that will trap and hold an unauthorized person coming through the portal. (Every magical working or ability has some cost.)

Ah, the Characters!

When it comes to memorable characters in the Deryni series, one has to begin with Alaric Morgan, Duke of Corwyn, who’s introduced in the opening of Deryni Rising, rushing through the streets of the capital, and finally arriving at court only to have the men view him as a pariah and the women view him as well, forbidden fruit.

…Morgan was suddenly aware again how he must stand out among them in his dusty black leathers. But there was more to it than that, he realized. As he made his way up the staircase, he noticed the conversation stopped as he paused, especially among the ladies. And when he returned their glances with his usual half-smile and bow, the ladies shrank away from him as though afraid, and the men moved their hands a little closer to their weapons.

Abruptly, he recognized the problem. In spite of his long absence, he was being recognized and connected with the wild Deryni rumors. Someone had certainly gone to a lot of trouble to taint his name. These people actually believed him to be the evil Deryni sorcerer of their legends!

Very well. Let them stare. He would play along. If they wished to see the suave, self-assured, vaguely menacing Deryni Lord in action, he would oblige!

Alaric has a high sense of honor, a cynical sense of the world, and is gobsmacked to sometimes be the subject of divine attention, including periodic and unexplained appearances by Saint Camber in times of need. His young charge, Kelson, is brave but has not yet grown into his kingship. There is something of a Merlin/Arthur vibe between the two of them. But the world of Gwynedd is also religious and a goodly number of the characters in the novels are priests, including Duncan McLain.

McLain is technically barred from being a priest because he’s Deryni but, nonetheless, he has a true vocation for God. He strives to do only good but if he ever reveals his secret, not only would he be stripped of his priesthood but he would be burned at the stake for his heresy. Duncan struggles with this duality, hiding his true self, but also fearing he has somehow sinned by being born wrong.

I must admit, however, that my two favorite characters are in the earlier time period: Camber of Culdi and his son, Father Joram MacRorie. Camber continues my fascination with older male characters who have to change their lives to either redeem themselves or save others. Joram is a priest with a true vocation but he’s also a leader of a warrior knight order. They fight to overturn a despotic king but by putting Cinhil on the thrown, one could also argue that they created the backlash against Deryni that results in the deaths of many of their friends and family. There are no easy answers for Camber and Joram.

My other favorite is the doomed King Javan, Cinhil’s son. (No spoilers here, as Javan’s book is called King Javan’s Year.) Javan is born with a physical deformity and, in a world where fighting prowess is demanded in kings, must fight all his life to be as good as everyone else. He’s essentially hoping to save his kingdom while isolated and alone, surrounded by former Regents who are loath to give up their power to a young king just come to manhood. I just about cry at the end of his story every time I read it.

Conclusion: Definitely Worth Reading

The Deryni series is set in a fascinating world that becomes richer and more complex as the stories continue. The first series is more written in what we’d call today a young adult style but Kurtz’s writing evolves into something deep and satisfying, especially in the Histories of King Kelson. My one caveat is that the Childe Morgan series is focused a little too much on the backstory and lacks the intense pacing of the other stories.

And now I will go back to re-reading the Codex and lose myself in fictional history.


  1. Alaric

    I’ve never read this series, but there have been many times when people I encounter online assume I must be a fan, because of my usual user name (which is just my actual first name). Someday, I’ll read it.

  2. I enjoy the first trilogy but found the sequels and prequels less rewarding. Partly that’s by the mid-1980s I’d developed a flinch reaction toward characters who resemble Claremont mutie-hunters so the Deryni persecution became increasingly frustrating to read.

      1. So would mutant powers. I still get fed up with “kill the mutie” characters. one of the things I liked about the original trilogy is that at least one of the Deryni haters proved capable of reconsidering his position.

        1. Corrina Lawson

          There is a character like that in the Chronicles of the Deryni, a supposed enemy who has a change of heart. The later-set books are better with that but, yeah, the earlier-set series is pretty grim, overall.

  3. conrad1970

    Not read any of the Deryni series, just because there are so many fantasy series to choose from. Maybe I’ll get around to it someday.
    Will say however that I think Martin’s Song of Fire and Ice series is one of the most overrated book series ever. I guess I’m in the minority on that one.

    1. Corrina Lawson

      The first few books were interesting: Martin does have a knack for getting deep into the point of view of the characters, which attracts many readers: the emotional intensity is quite high. It has the interesting theme of the use and misuse of power.

      That said, I wouldn’t rate it as my favorite fantasy saga. I’m not sad I read it but I haven’t re-read it.

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