For her second guest blog on this site, Judith Tarr, shares a bit about her influences. She says that her first novel, The Isle of Glass, which appeared in 1985, is a medieval fantasy that owed a great deal to Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni books. Her latest novel, Forgotten Suns,a space opera, appeared last year. In between, she’s written historicals and historical fantasies and epic fantasies, some of which have been reborn as ebooks from Book View Café. Like the other authors featured this month, Judy has a novel in the Women in Fantasy Storybundle.
She has won the Crawford Award, and been a finalist for the World Fantasy Award and the Locus Award. She also blogs on a variety of topics at several websites, including Book View Café. Her blog here in August was one of the most popular guest blogs we’ve run.
Invoking a Great Old One: Katherine Kurtz
by Judith Tarr
“Write about your favorite female fantasy writer,” Kris said. And I wondered how I was going to do that, because there are so many, with more appearing all the time.
I’ve decided to talk about one of the Great Old Ones, the mothers of our genre: Katherine Kurtz. I have many younger favorites, and new ones rising just about every day (we are in a golden age of fantasy, we really are), but Kurtz for me was key. Her books showed me where I wanted to go with my own.
I’ve been rereading her first published trilogy on the blog at Tor.com; the books are fresher in my mind than they’ve been since I first read them. They’re also holding up amazingly well.
The first volume, Deryni Rising, appeared in 1970, as part of the Ballantine Adult Fantasy Series. That imprint, edited by Lin Carter, revived such forgotten classics as the works of E.R. Eddison and Lord Dunsany and Evangeline Walton, and also introduced new writers, of whom Katherine Kurtz was one.
No one had ever written a book exactly like this. She wrote in a secondary world with a number of close parallels to our Western Middle Ages: a powerful Church with a rich heritage of Latin ritual, a feudal economic system, a few nations and cultures that a historian of our world might recognize. Gwynedd, for example. Moors around the edges, standing guard and observing magical rituals with professional interest.
Although the setting and the details and the sense of time and place evoked the historical novel, this was not our world, or our history. It was a world in which there had never been a Pope; bishops and archbishops controlled the Church, excommunicated heretics, punished rebellious populations with Interdict. Its major departure was the Deryni themselves: a race of powerful sorcerers, able to interbreed with humans, but not themselves human.
In Kurtz’s first novel, the Deryni, who once ruled the Eleven Kingdoms, are now a hated and hunted minority. Certain forces both good and bad are trying to change that. The good guys want the pogroms and the hatred to stop, and Deryni to be accepted in human society. The bad guys want to be Evil Overlords.
For me as a teenager already severely infected with the writing bug, these books were exactly what I was looking for. I didn’t care that the prose wasn’t soaringly wonderful. It was serviceable. It got the story told.
And what a story, with characters like those in the historical sagas of Dorothy Dunnett and in films such as “The Scarlet Pimpernel.” Lovely sexy men in splendid outfits (much more High Medieval or Elizabethan than the supposed Twelfth Century, but I didn’t care), spectacular magic, gorgeous rituals, danger and daring and more than enough buckles to swash.
She created a world that made me want to write my own. Not fanfic—I had head-canon, of course, and imagined the lives and stories of the characters outside the books, but when I sat down to write, I went my own way. Her books showed me what I could do with my medievalist tendencies and my religious upbringing. Her themes of faith and morals, humans and Others, resonated with the baby writer that I was.
When I proposed the reread, inspired by Kari Sperring’s lovely article last year in Strange Horizons, I was apprehensive. I hadn’t looked at the books in decades. I had read and nodded as Ursula K. Le Guin deplored the mundanity of Kurtz’s prose in “From Elfland to Poughkeepsie.” I was afraid they would fail me, and leave me with a sense of embarrassment.
What a joy to discover that I still love them. Oh, I can see the wobbles and bobbles, stagger over and around the sometimes humongous plotholes, and sigh wearily at the problematical depiction of women.
It’s all still there. Lively, engaging main characters with wondrous dash and flair. Richly described settings and deeply felt rituals. Magic I could play like a movie in my head: dramatic duels, stately rituals, briefer flashes of power. And a story that gallops along steadily and carries me with it.
These are still heart books. I forgive their faults because they give me so much that matters. They remind me why I want to write: the stories I want to tell, and the themes I want to ponder. They came for me at just the right time in my development as a reader and a writer.
They’ve come back at the right time, too. If I’d reread them ten years ago or even twenty, I would have been sniffy about them. I’d have stumbled hard over the imperfections of plotting and prose. And the female characters—oh, dear. Though I notice those even more now than I would have in 2006 or certainly in 1996.
What makes them work for me in 2016 is a certain softening of the critical self. There are so many worse sins of prose and story in even the “classic” canon of fantasy since 1970, and lord knows in the bestsellers that emerged in the decades after the Deryni books rose and were forgotten. The things I loved originally are still important to me, and the characters, when I met them again, felt like old friends.
All these years, and they still capture my imagination. I can still see what made me love them when I first came across them. They’re still favorites, even after I’ve come to know and love so many more.
Jaime Lee Moyer’s Delia and Dora, Martha Wells’ Moon and Jade and Stone, Aliette de Bodard’s Philippe and Marguerite, Rae Carson’s Elisa, Ursula K. Le Guin’s Ged and Tenar and Arren, N.K. Jemison’s Yeine, Katherine Eliska Kimbriel’s Allie, Kate Elliott’s Cat and Beatrice…the list goes on and and on. And still there’s Morgan and Duncan and Kelson (and Nigel and Arilan and Richenda and dear Sean Derry), just as alive and just as much a part of me as they ever were.