Monday, November 30, 2009

Pulp Fantasy Library: Deryni Rising

As often happens, I'll discuss a book in this series that can't, by any reasonable definition, be called "pulp fantasy." Nevertheless, I discuss the book because I think it played a role in the development of the hobby, despite its being very different in style and content from most of the other books that inspired early gamers and game designers. In some case, it's precisely because these books are so different that I include them. They provide a counterweight to the vast majority of what I talk about here, a reminder that the early hobby was in fact a welter of conflicting ideas and approaches, not all of which agreed with one another.

A good case in point is Katherine Kurtz's 1970 novel, Deryni Rising. Set in the imaginary medieval realm of Gwynedd, the novel tells the story of Prince Kelson Haldane as he attempts to claim his rightful throne as king of Gwynedd after the death of his father. Complicating matters is the fact that Kelson is opposed by a powerful sorceress who wishes to claim the throne for herself and whose magical abilities all but guarantee her victory. Kelson's father, the previous king, had held off this pretender through his own magical abilities, which Kelson lacks. The prince must then unravel the mystery of his father's powers in order to succeed him and take his place as Gwynedd's ruler.

Gwynedd is one of the Eleven Kingdoms, a collection of medieval feudal realms, some of which are clear analogs of places in the real world, while others are less obviously so. There are many other analogs to real world institutions, most notably the Holy Church, an inexplicably Christian church, complete with most of the trappings of medieval Catholicism, including ecclesiastical Latin (though there does not seem to be a Pope). Just how and why this fantasy world managed to produce so close a copy of medieval Catholicism is never explained and it's something that never really sat well with me, as the world of the Eleven Kingdoms is clearly not our world or even an alternate version of it. This is made particularly clear by the inclusion of the Deryni, a race of human beings with natural psychic/magical abilities and who are often treated with suspicion, if not hatred, in many of the Eleven Kingdoms.

Deryni Rising is the first of many books set in this world, one that clearly found lots of fans in the early days of gaming. I can't say I'm among them, unfortunately. I have always found them difficult to like, but then I've never enjoyed books that borrow heavily from the real Middle Ages while at the same time changing many elements of the period without any concern for the ramifications. I'm probably in the minority on this score, given the success of George R.R. Martin, whose books seem to be spiritual descendants of Kurtz's (albeit with a great deal more sex and violence). There's little question that the Deryni novels inspired lots of gamers, who took their approach to world design as a model to emulate. These worlds run in parallel to the swords-and-sorcery-inspired worlds that I prefer, but they're no less a part of the heritage of the hobby, even they weren't especially influential on Arneson or Gygax. Still, I can't deny their place at the gaming table and think it worth reading a book or two in the series to get a taste of what they're like and why people fell in love with them.

17 comments:

  1. I didn't encounter these books until after college. I enjoyed all of the Deryni series immensely. They were a powerful influence along with Harn, and Elisabeth Moon's Pakesnarrion series on the early 90's development of my Majestic Wilderlands.

    They helped me adopt a more naturalistic style for my campaign and underscored the importance of culture and religion. While I never went hyper realistic like Harn the ideas in the Deryni series caused me to think about the underlying conflicts in my campaign.

    I never borrowed much in the way of specifics as the Deryni setting differed too much from the Majestic Wilderlands. The heaviest influence was on how I portrayed religion and religous schism in my campaign.

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  2. Interesting you brought these up. I thought they were okay and I only ran out of steam towards the end, unlike Martin's "Game of Thrones" or Kate Elliot's "Crown of Stars," which I found excruciating. After thinking about it, I realized that Deryni books have been at least a minor influence on how I approach religion within my campaign setting. Hmmmm...

    Thanks, James.

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  3. I was (and still am) a huge fan of the Deryni series. Funny thing is that I find it to be the anti-D&D in many regards: the main characters are titled nobility tied to fiefdoms and lands, "clerics" are not fiery battle-healers, but cassocked priests and monks (and Christians at that), magic tends to be subtle, psychic, and highly ceremonial, and the only "demi-human" race is the Deryni themselves.

    I'm curious what influence you think the series had on D&D, because I'm not sure I see any.

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  4. I'm curious what influence you think the series had on D&D, because I'm not sure I see any.

    I don't think the books influence D&D all that much, but they did influence the wider hobby. The style of world-building Kurtz employs is very popular in certain circles. You can see it in settings like Hârn in my opinion -- a kind of quasi-realistic approach that draws heavily on real world models for inspiration.

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  5. I enjoyed the Camber of Culdi books more and they certainly add more depth to the earlier Deyrni stories which they are a prequel to.

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  6. OT post. Just wanted to let your readers know that The Dark Chateau, your new adventure, is now available for pre-order at Barnes & Noble. I signed up for one yesterday. Cheers.

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  7. EDIT: The title of the adventure is the Cursed Chateau. (My sincere apologies).

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  8. There is a terrific fantasy out whose sub-theme addresses the fundamental problem with the whole "Middle Ages But Not" challenge of inherently poly/pantheistic fantasy being overlaid on a decidedly monotheistic fantasy architecture.

    Summa Elvetica: A Casuistry of the Elvish Controversy is the story of a Catholic scholar on a mission to determine if Elves are ensoulled. A very clever book, and a fun read.

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  9. I think the Deryni influence is also very strongly felt in AD&D's psionics rules.

    I know the articles (some of them written by Kurtz herself) in the Deryni issue of Dragon were hugely popular in the AD&D circles I ran in and the Psionicist class (also from that issue) has been allowed in my games going back to the 80's.

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  10. I was never hugely taken with these books--I read the first two Camber books and then this one. I didn't hate them, but I did hate Cinhil Haldane. However, the Not-Catholic Church didn't bother me.

    Actually, I always liked the default setting of the Fantasy trip, which had an alien world with honest-to-God Christians and Muslims.

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  11. I think the Deryni influence is also very strongly felt in AD&D's psionics rules.

    It's possible, although Stephen Marsh, who's largely responsible for the psionics system of OD&D (and, by extension, AD&D) never mentioned the books as among his influences.

    I know the articles (some of them written by Kurtz herself) in the Deryni issue of Dragon were hugely popular in the AD&D circles I ran in and the Psionicist class (also from that issue) has been allowed in my games going back to the 80's.

    I remember a number of variant psionics articles by Arthur Collins but none by Kurtz herself. Do you recall the issue where she wrote something? I didn't know she was a gamer.

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  12. @ James:

    Hmmm, I must have misremembered somehow. I thought one of the articles in the Deryni issue was written by Kurtz herself, but I was mistaken.

    I did find Kurtz on a few lists of "famous D&D players" but that's not definitive.

    Maybe it's just something I'd heard.

    Interestingly though, while doing a name search for Katherine Kurtz in my Dragon archive, I came across a mention in one of Len Lakofka's Leomund's Tiny Hut articles (Dragon #68) recommending folks read the Deryni books for inspiration on clerics (cloistered and non).

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  13. Hullo, never read the books but the welsh-like setting makes me think of it as probably inspired by the Mabinogion

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  14. Hullo, never read the books but the welsh-like setting makes me think of it as probably inspired by the Mabinogion

    The unfortunate thing is that the Deryni books aren't particularly Welsh-like at all, aside from some borrowed names. That's ultimately what galls me about the series -- they borrow lots of names and ideas from medieval history, society, and culture but those borrowings are very superficial. It's why I've known people to refer to these kinds of books as "Ren Faire fantasy." I think that's a mite harsh, but I do understand the criticism.

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  15. I saw Camber of Culdi on a library desk when I was in junior high doing homework. Could not read it because the vocabulary was beyond me. Put it down. Saw it laying on a park bench this summer. Picked it up. Still can't read it. I enjoyed Ursula Le Guin's Wizard of Earthsea. Book 2, Tombs Of The Atuan, irritated me a whole lot, and I only read it half-way. Camber Of Culdi is irritating me in the same way. It seems too self-indulgent to me. Tombs of Atuan to me seemed like fantasy written by women for girls, and camber Of Culdi was lacking Le Guin's sophistication; to me.

    Also, I think that the Deryni series is more of the high fantasy genre rather than swords and sorcery. Until I encountered the excellent reading list on this website, and until the coming of Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett, I thought that "fantasy literature" was re-telling ad nauseum of Lord of the Rings and Ivanhoe.

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  16. I read Camber of Culdi first, and really loved it. I later went on to the rest of the Deryni series, but didn't find them as engaging.

    And Tombs of Atuan... Wow. I understand the "different strokes" principle intellectually, but the idea that someone could not like that book boggles my mind. For me it's hands down the best in the whole Earthsea cycle.

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  17. I also recall Kurtz as being a D&D player, though I initially misremembered and thought she had written articles for Dragon- I was thinking of Katherine Kerr, who had a baker’s dozen published there, including “The Real Barbarians” reprinted in Best of Dragon 5. Kerr was another D&D-playing fantasy author with some genuine historical chops.

    I always liked the Deryni books, though I found the Camber books a bit hard to read. For my money, Deryni Rising is a bit juvenile, and the next four Deryni (Checkmate, High Deryni, The Bishop’s Heir, and the King’s Justice) are noticeably better, with the latter two being my favorites. I always really liked their handling of the church, the way they emphasized its central importance within any even vaguely historical medieval setting. And there are fighting/adventuresome Clerics in there too- Father (later Bishop) Duncan, and even the infamous Archbishop Loris goes into battle. Monsignor Gorony is a more rogueish sort of wicked cleric, but definitely goes out into the world to get things done, rather than being cloistered.

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