In the King’s Service: Not among her best, but still pretty strong

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsbook review Katherine Kurtz Deryni In the King's ServiceIn the King’s Service by Katherine Kurtz

In the King’s Service is the beginning of a new trilogy which details the recent history of the kingdoms that led to the events of her original series focusing on King Kelson, Alaric, et. al. (beginning with Deryni Rising). Though I suppose it could be read independently, I certainly wouldn’t recommend it and advise people new to this world to start with her first trilogy (or possibly go chronologically starting with the Camber series depending on taste).

For most of us long-time readers of Katherine Kurtz’s series, this begins to fill in one of the more interesting gaps in its timeline. While we see a few minor familiar characters, the ones we are probably most desirous of seeing (Alaric, Duncan, Kelson) don’t yet appear in this work, which is a generation earlier. Well, one does — but as a baby and not until the very end, and since his dialogue would pretty much be “uurp” and “bbbllhttt,” it doesn’t really count. Kelson’s father appears as a young child and one looks forward to seeing how his relationship with Morgan evolves over the trilogy’s action.

In the King’s Service doesn’t reach the higher levels of the Deryni works, an admittedly quite high standard, but it doesn’t fall far below. Probably the biggest reason for its falling short is its time setting and structure. Unlike many of her other novels, which focused in sharp, vivid detail on a lot of characters over a relatively brief period of time; In the King’s Service keeps the plethora of characters but stretches out the events over years and years. Unfortunately this lessens the overall emotional impact of many of the scenes as we quickly move on to more action, sometimes months or years later. It is also difficult to really get to know most of the characters because we move so freely and widely in time and space and number of characters. Some of them have potential were they to be carried into the next book, but as many readers will know, Kurtz is not leery of killing off major characters and she does so several times here, though she does tuck a few away for safekeeping until the next book.

Alyce Corwyn, who will be Morgan’s mother (as fans will know — so nothing given away here), stands out as the strongest and most vividly realized character, though still not in the vein of earlier Deryni inhabitants; her appearance in the next book may raise her to that level however.
Other characters remain a bit shadowy and tenuous. One character in particular stands out as a bit two-dimensional, seemingly brought on stage only for a needed major plot point, making her appearance and actions seem a bit forced. King Donal is portrayed as a man torn between his desire for justice and right and his desire to protect his kingdom and especially his heir. Here again, the characterization falls a bit shallow; it would have been nice to have seen his torment more often and more fully. As it is presented, it reads a bit hollow since it occurs so quickly.

The various plot lines will seem familiar to fans: Mearan rebels, Torenthi incursions, church antipathy toward Deryni, a king trying to protect his lineage, various coming-of-age stories. Their familiarity bleeds them a bit of intensity, as does the fact that Kurtz is showing the earliest stages of many of these problems which lead to the full blow-up of most of them in Kelson’s time. But if they pale somewhat in intensity and originality, they still retain the ability to compel interest and at times move the reader. I can’t say I avidly and breathlessly turned every page, but I still wanted to and enjoyed reading it in a single setting. A few plot points felt forced and I have to say the closing scene involving Brion I found utterly implausible which, coming at the end, left a little of a bad taste. But she manages to mostly avoid the pitfall of many prequels — the sense you sometimes get that writer is simply working mechanically backward filling in the blanks to come. As always, she is a master of ritualistic detail, which some will revel in and others probably skim through.
The frequent, lengthy, and important delineation of bloodlines can get a bit overwhelming; the opening chapter is especially taxing in this regard but if you can fight your way through that discussion, you’ll do fine the rest of the way.

Mostly one gets the sense that this book is in fact more necessary prequel than a full-fledged Deryni novel. The sweep of years and characters has cleared the historical table, so to speak, and managed to put the reader at the point where Alyce, Morgan, Duncan, Brion, etc. will be able to take more full stage in the next book while setting the trendlines in place for the actions we know as fans are to come. In that regard, In the King’s Service does its job and if it isn’t a top tier Deryni novel, it has ambitions for being more than just serviceable exposition, ambitions that it mostly achieves. One of the ways it goes beyond simple exposition is the way she drops references to seemingly important people and groups and magic systems that are not at all familiar and that will clearly be explained in the next book. So rather than just give the reader comforting background information, she offers up tasty hints of things to come leaving the reader wanting more information.

Recommended with a strong sense that book two will be much better and in that top level.

The Deryni Chronicles — (1970-2014) Publisher: For more than 30 years, The Deryni Chronicles have transported readers to a world of secret sorcery and courtly intrigue. Deryni Rising, the first book in the series, launched Katherine Kurtz’s phenomenal, bestselling career. Now, with this special edition, including a new introduction by the author, fans of the series can revel anew in the dawning of an epic…

The Chronicles of the Deryni (1970-1973) (about King Kelson, Morgan, Duncan)

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The Histories of King Kelson (1984-2000)  (about King Kelson, Morgan, Duncan)

Katherine Kurtz Deryni The Histories of King Kelson: The Bishop's Heir, The King's Justice, Quest for Saint CamberKatherine Kurtz Deryni The Histories of King Kelson: The Bishop's Heir, The King's Justice, Quest for Saint CamberKatherine Kurtz Deryni The Histories of King Kelson: The Bishop's Heir, The King's Justice, Quest for Saint Camber fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviews

The Legends of Camber of Culdi (1976-1981)

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The Heirs of Saint Camber (1989-1994)

The Heirs of Saint Camber: The Harrowing of Gwynedd, King Javan's Year, The Bastard PrinceThe Heirs of Saint Camber: The Harrowing of Gwynedd, King Javan's Year, The Bastard PrinceThe Heirs of Saint Camber: The Harrowing of Gwynedd, King Javan's Year, The Bastard Prince

Childe Morgan (2004-2014)

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Related:

Katherine Kurtz Deryni Codex Derynianus


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BILL CAPOSSERE, who's been with us since June 2007, lives in Rochester NY, where he is an English adjunct by day and a writer by night. His essays and stories have appeared in Colorado Review, Rosebud, Alaska Quarterly, and other literary journals, along with a few anthologies, and been recognized in the "Notable Essays" section of Best American Essays. His children's work has appeared in several magazines, while his plays have been given stage readings at GEVA Theatre and Bristol Valley Playhouse. When he's not writing, reading, reviewing, or teaching, he can usually be found with his wife and son on the frisbee golf course or the ultimate frisbee field.

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