Deryni Rising

Katherine Kurtz
Deryni Rising Cover

Historical historical fantasy


I found an article on Strange Horizons the other day that piqued my interest: it was called "The Woman Who Made Fantasy: Katherine Kurtz" and I had never heard that name before, nor did I recognize the accompanying cover art of a young man in garb with a flaming sword facing off against a dragon of blue fire. But it turns out that Ms. Kurtz' Deryni Rising was one of the very first entries in the tradition of secondary-world historical fantasy--the tradition that contains many of my all-time faves, including Tamora Pierce's Tortall works and George R.R. Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire series. Turns out Deryni Rising, published in 1970, predates them all.

There are a lot of things in this book that have since become cliches, and interestingly, there are some aspects to the worldbuilding that I think would have been "corrected" in a book being written today because they're too historical and not fantasy enough--mainly the use of Latin and Greek in the Church Militant, which is not only heavily modeled on the Roman Catholic Church, but uses most of the same trappings and terminology. And to be entirely frank, much of the prose is a bit clunky. Basically, it was written in 1970 and you can kinda tell.

That said, I still found it a solid, entertaining, engaging fantasy story from beginning to end. It takes place in a little pseudo-British Isles-y kingdom populated mostly by humans and a little bit by a race of sorcerers called the Deryni, who used to be in power several centuries back but are now persecuted by the Church and mostly in hiding. Some humans can learn Deryni magic, including the ruling line of our setting kingdom with its unpronounceable faux-Welsh name. When King Brion has a very mysterious heart attack despite being in prime health, a lot of things go into motion. His son and heir, Prince Kelson, needs to come into his powers, which means he needs help from the Deryni Lord Alaric Morgan. But the Prince's mother is dead set against her son dabbling in magic, and is plotting to have Morgan arrested for treason. And an old enemy of King Brion's, a rogue Deryni sorceress, plans to take out Kelson and Morgan both. Morgan, Kelson, and a few loyal others have precious little time to get the new king crowned and fully vested with his powers... and, of course, nothing goes quite according to plan during any of it. There's a good deal of fighting, magic, assassination attempts, political plots, treason, and all that good stuff we've come to expect from historical fantasy in the 45 years since it was first published.

It's probably not going to win over anyone who's not already inclined toward fantasy, and it's got some awkward representation issues (the only two prominent female characters are both villains, and then there's the stereotypically henchman-y depiction of Moors, which doesn't make sense if there's not Northern Africa, wouldn't they have another name?). And it's a little shorter on backstory than I like, although there's enough to make sense of the characters and their actions. I could probably come up with complaints about it all day, really. But for all that, I really enjoyed reading it! The pacing is good, there are a couple really good plot twists, and there's no obligatory romantic subplot. I may well check out the sequels.