Book Review: The Quest for Saint Camber
It took me a little more than two years to read the first four trilogies in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni series. In reading order, the four trilogies are:
The Legends of Saint Camber
Camber of Culdi
Camber the Heretic
The Heirs of Saint Camber
The Harrowing of Gwynedd
King Javan’s Year
The Bastard Prince
The Chronicles of the Deryni
The Histories of King Kelson
The Bishop’s Heir
The King’s Justice
The Quest for Saint Camber
As I’ve mentioned before, Kurtz’s series were immensely important to me as a teenager. They were second only to The Lord of the Rings. Fascinated by the blend of medievalism and ecclesiastical politics, I eagerly awaited the next installment.
Across the course of the series, there is Camber, a Deryni mystic who is canonized as a saint. The trouble is, Camber didn’t die but rather assumed someone else’s identity. He watches helplessly as people misinterpret seemingly miraculous events and attribute them to him. As a result of his canonization, there is a violent backlash against all Deryni, which results in oppressive legislation that all but eliminates the rights of anyone who has magic.
The final book in the series is The Quest for Saint Camber. It follows King Kelson’s quest to recover religious relics so that he can reestablish the cult of Saint Camber. Meanwhile, his cousin Conall – an arrogant and driven young man – is eyeing both the crown and Rothana, a Deryni princess. When Kelson is swept off a mountainside and is presumably drowned, Conall takes advantage of the situation by moving himself up the ladder toward kingship. Kelson, of course, survives and returns to confront his treasonous cousin.
The most compelling aspects of the stories are the machinations that are such a prominent part of medieval politics: rebellious nobles, neighboring kingdoms, the awarding of landed titles. Also significant is the role of the church. Kurtz describes in great detail the ecclesiastical hierarchy and how it leverages power alongside the throne. Kurtz’ Gwynedd feels as real as Middle-Earth, albeit without fantastical creatures. She excels in presenting real-world problems and challenging solutions. In fact, many of her characters are nuanced so that even when they are fighting on the same side, they have their own agendas. Overall, plenty of humans distrust the Deryni and go out of their way to oppress them. It sets up a fair amount of sympathy for the Deryni, but here’s the thing. Kurtz doesn’t sanctify them. Rather, the Deryni, at times, can be a bit manipulative with their magic. In order to protect themselves, they may resort to magic to put a human to sleep or to modify their memories. It seems harmless in each instance, but each time it happens, you wonder about the ethics of it all.
Kurtz's knowledge of medieval culture is impressive. She describes in detail the pageantry of the court and the solemnity of religious services. Clothing and jewelry receive particular attention, no doubt to paint for the reader the splendor of colors and textures. Her prose can be quite an immersive experience.
This is my third time through the 12-book series, and I confess to having mixed reactions to it. Why was I so fascinated by the story? It certainly has compelling moments and sympathetic characters, and yet I found stretches of writing rather tedious. How did my distractible fifteen-year-old self manage to wade through pages upon pages of description? At that age, I preferred action, so the fact that I had the patience to keep reading must be a testament to Kurtz's narrative powers.
Now, as middle-aged adult, I find the story dragged down by excessive description. For example, in every single book in the series, there is a scene in which the Deryni use special dice-sized cubes to set magical wards for their arcane works. It’s the same process each time, so I wound up skimming these pages. Likewise, in scenes of ecclesiastical pageantry or a religious service, I browsed the paragraphs for the more important points.
I lost track of the number of times that characters gathered for a meeting, and there would be a minimum of two to three pages establishing where every person was in the room. It was like actors getting to their places on stage and waiting for the director to call action. The descriptions did little to advance the story.
What I found most frustrating is that Kurtz would hint at intriguing aspects of magical history. You would get a glimpse of hidden powers and then … the subject would be dropped. Ultimately, this is why I found The Quest for Saint Camber to be one of the more tedious stories. Certainly the plot of Conall vying for the throne was compelling, but when the book is named for a religious quest, you expect that to take more prominence. At the end, Kelson does encounter a secret society of Camberian religious, and there are a few tantalizing moments that might uncover the mystery of Saint Camber. But in the end, there is no true resolution.
I’m glad to have revisited the series. It was worth it to read them again and experience moments of nostalgia. But I doubt I will read her most recent trilogy: The Childe Morgan Trilogy, which falls between The Heirs of Saint Camber and The Chronicles of the Deryni. I suspect I would find it less than illuminating.