|In Short:||Who can look upon the face of God and live?|
|Recommended:||Yes, because I’m weird that way.|
|“Right now, his body is incorruptible – for no logical reason that we can offer…Evaine, what if he really is a saint?”|
Cinhil Haldane, the reluctant priest-king of Gwynedd, is dead; his young son Alroy, weak in mind and body, occupies the throne in name only. For all practical purposes, the realm is under the iron rule of a group of power-hungry Regents who have dedicated themselves, zealously and brutally, to the eradication of the magically-endowed Deryni. Many have died at their hands, including the greatest Deryni adept of all, “Saint” Camber of Culdi. But Camber’s body isn’t decaying, and his children, warrior priest Joram and recently widowed Evaine, have reason to believe that he may still be under the influence of powerful, if poorly worked, spell intended to hold death at bay. It will be up to Evaine to find and implement the necessary magicks to break that spell –not easy to do when being identified as a Deryni brings with it an automatic sentence of death. Possession of Deryni magic has doomed countless innocents; can it be used to bring back the Derynis’ greatest protector?
When fans of Katherine Kurtz’s long-running Deryni series talk about their favorite books, The Harrowing of Gwynedd rarely comes up. This is unsurprising. It is -- make no mistake -- very bleak and sad. Evil prospers, and not everyone will survive the attempt to revive Camber. (Who indeed can look upon the face of God and live? Pretty much no one, it turns out.) In fact, this is one of several Camber-era books that end with the death of the protagonist. (Hell, Camber himself “dies” twice. Three times, if you count the ending of this book.)
And yet, I love this book. Of all the Deryni novels, this one is my absolute favorite, for several reasons.
First, I unabashedly adore the heroine. When Camber’s daughter Evaine is first introduced -- all the way back in Camber of Culdi (1976) – she’s young, pretty, and much adored. Although she’s obviously very intelligent and is better educated than your average young woman in that society, her destiny seems secure and she’s perfectly content with it – she will marry stalwart physician Rhys Thuryn, run his household, raise his children, and join her father in his studies as time allows.
But things don’t quite shake out that way for Evaine, however. (Well, they do, but then they don’t).
Over the course of the Camber novels, we watch Evaine evolve into a brilliant scholar and powerful sorceress – in fact, she’s arguably the most powerful woman in Gwynedd by the time The Harrowing of Gwynedd starts. Life has not been altogether kind to her -- her husband is dead, her oldest child has been murdered by the Regents’ men in a truly horrific way (that would be in Camber the Heretic, if you want to avoid it, which I kind of wish I had), she herself is living in exile with her remaining children, and there’s a hefty price on all of their heads.
Despite all this, she remains passionately devoted to Gwynedd and its Crown, and is determined to bring Camber back, if she can, to aid his people. Through the exercise of her power and her intellect she does find a way to free Camber from that which binds him. The final ritual is beautifully written – no one writes magickal ritual quite like Kurtz does, and she has a couple of really good ones in here. There is, of course, a price to be paid, and the conclusion is bittersweet, but appropriate. Evaine is satisfied, so I’m satisfied for her, even though I cry a little tear for her every time I read it.
Subplots in the book include the induction of Rhys’ old mentor Queron into the newly formed Camberian Council, the attempts of said Council to protect the remaining Deryni in Gwynedd, and the ongoing struggles of Javan, Alroy’s twin and heir, who also has some physical issues – notably a club foot – but is emotionally stronger than his twin and hates the Regents to boot. Of particular note is the discovery by Evaine, Joram, and Queron of the final resting place of two legendary Deryni adepts, who are found in a condition that suggests that there is one hell of a story waiting to be told about them.
I want to hear that story -- and also the story of the Healer Jerusha, Rhys and Evaine’s youngest child, about whom very little is known beyond a few basic facts laid out in the Codex Derynianus; and the story of the cataclysmic events of 948 (hinted at all over the place, but never completely divulged). Unfortunately, since the mid-1990s Kurtz has been focusing more on King Kelson and his advisers, and there’s no official word on whether or when she plans on picking the story of Camber’s Heirs back up.
To be fair, The Harrowing of Gwynedd was followed by two other Camber-era books, King Javan’s Year and The Bastard Prince. Both were pretty good, but I’m greedy and I want more! But to quote my kids’ teachers, “You get what you get and you don’t throw a fit.” So to sum things up, if you’re new to the worlds of Katherine Kurtz, this probably isn’t the place to start. But established fans can revel in the powerful magic in this book, as well as the culmination of the journey of one of the best-realized heroines in fantasy fiction.
-- Kate Nagy