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I grew up with the so-called fantasy boom of the 1970s and early 1980s. When I first started reading fantasy as a child, the range of books available to me in the UK was limited. It consisted mainly of reprints of books from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, some American imports (mainly short story collections in the sword-and-sorcery mode), the early books of Moorcock, and, of course, Tolkien. I was a voracious reader and my parents were perfectly happy to let me read well ahead of my age and to borrow books from the adult section of the library. And then, at some point, everything changed. New books and new writers flooded onto the market. Most of the writers I already knew were male. Many of these new writers were female. For a teenage girl, this was wonderful.

That was now long enough ago that academics and critics are studying it, classifying and analyzing and assessing those books and writers and creating, as always seems to happen, a canon, a body of fantasy work that can be considered significant. New readers are told who is worth remembering, new writers pointed to worthy forebears. We are writing our history, shaping our genre to our cultural norms of value and hierarchy and status.

And we are leaving out the women. When Joanna Russ published How to Suppress Women’s Writing, she laid out in stark form the modes western culture uses to elide and silence women’s work. Deny, particularize, limit. She did not specify “forget,” but she might well have, for that is how we behave to our female antecedents, over and over, when we create canon. That is what is happening now in our analyses of fantasy. When I set out to write the first installment of this column, I pulled various books on fantasy from my shelves and checked the indices. I was looking for one particular name. They are all excellent books, important contributions to the genre, but most of them did not mention this name at all, and those that did referred to it only in passing. Yet the name I was hunting for was that of a writer who was in many ways the spearhead of the boom, an innovator, a game-changer.

What was the name for which I was searching? Katherine Kurtz.

Kurtz’s debut novel, Deryni Rising, came out from Ballantine Books in 1970. It was the first book to be published under their Adult Fantasy label that was not a reprint of a much older work. And it changed the face of modern fantasy.

That is a large claim, and I can hear the skepticism already. If Kurtz and her book were so important, why is she not in those books of criticism and on the lips of modern readers and writers? After all, Howard and Lovecraft and Tolkien and Moorcock still are. I can’t give a definitive answer to this, but I can suggest one. Kurtz the game-changer is a woman.

On the surface, Deryni Rising is a deceptively simple book. It recounts the events surrounding the sudden death of one king and the anointing of his underage son as successor. It’s a secondary world fantasy, set against a background loosely reminiscent of fifteenth-century Britain, with names drawn rather unevenly from Welsh, Irish, French, and Germanic sources. The bulk of the cast are aristocrats and male, and high aristocrats at that: this is a tale of kings and dukes and court intrigue. There is an external threat with a mildly orientalist flavor (this latter is demonstrated to be more complicated in later volumes) and a clear sense of right and wrong. The fantasy element lies in the “Deryni” of the title: this is a world of hidden psychic powers, some genetic, some achieved via ritual magic. To a reader in 2015, this all probably sounds rather familiar. But in 1970, it was not. The bulk of the fantasy in print at the time was sword and sorcery, in the mode of Howard, and written in pulp style, or heavily formal so-called “High Fantasy” modeled on mediaeval prose tales and folklore—the works of Tolkien and Dunsany and Eddison—plus the occasional alternate history, such as the Lord Darcy stories of Randall Garrett. The former was full of colour and action and broad-brush heroes; the latter of stately events and curiosities. Neither involved much close attention to the internal lives of their characters.

Deryni Rising is unequivocally fantasy, but it is written more in the mode of the historical fiction of the time than its companion books on the Ballantine and other lists. In terms of style, it is closer to the complex and thoroughly researched novels of Dorothy Dunnett, Maurice Druon, and Zoe Oldenbourg than the fantasy that surrounded it (including Tolkien, who chose mythology over realism). Its treatment of magic too was dramatically different. This is a world of highly formal, ritual magic, without sorcerers, or demons, or exoticized and stereotypical “witchdoctors.” Magic requires training, careful and sometimes demanding preparation. It is never easy, or casual, and it is hard to come by. Before Kurtz, most magic in fantasy was picaresque, mysterious, and informal (with the exception of Garrett). Her handling of magic and its consequences and cost are like those of the occult novelists such as Dion Fortune, many of whom were themselves practitioners of ritual magic and drew on that in their fiction. And it is set against a background of closely observed and detailed faith, which is closely intertwined with every aspect of her characters’ lives.

It’s hard to explain to modern readers just how central and critical faith was to most mediaeval societies. It lay at the centre of everything, unquestioned and essential to every action and event. The vast majority of modern fantasy omits this element or reduces it to sketchy references to gods and temples. Even urban fantasies in which crosses and holy water repel vampires pay little attention to the context of these items, and their wielders have little apparent sense of belief. This was the case with most of the fantasies in print when Kurtz began to publish, too.[1] (Even in Tolkien, religion—which was key to the writer himself and his conception of Middle-earth—plays very little part in the lives and actions of his characters. And Deryni Rising was published before The Silmarillion, in which faith is far more central, so the latter cannot have influenced Kurtz.) There is a genuine sense of the immanence of the divine in her writing, and later books, notably the Camber series, place faith at the center of character motivation.

The influences Kurtz herself cites include Tolkien, along with Star Trek, El Cid, Frank Herbert’s Dune, and the films Becket and A Man for All Seasons, plus James Blish’s Jack of Eagles, which awoke her interest in occultism.[2] Her work brought this interest in science fiction and fantasy on the one hand, and mediaeval and early modern history on the other, together in a new and fresh way. Quite simply, she was the first writer of secondary-world historical fantasy, which was to become a flourishing sub-genre within SF, producing Guy Gavriel Kay, Judith Tarr, and George R. R. Martin. Kurtz makes this point herself in her introduction to the revised edition of Deryni Rising:

In 1969, when I actually began writing Deryni Rising, the sub-genre of what I now refer to as historical fantasy did not exist. I was making it up as I went along, though at the time I thought that all fantasy had to have magical creatures, rhyming spells, and special languages.[3]

Deryni Rising was to be followed by fifteen further novels in the series, plus a short story collection. Some are set after the first one, some exploring the history of her world and the events that created the culture. She has also written a number of occult alternate histories, and, with Deborah Turner Harris, the Adept series—an early urban fantasy of ritual magic, set in Scotland—and the Templar series—occult alternate history.

Throughout the 1970s, 1980s, and early 1990s, she was popular and widely read. But at some point in the later 1990s, she began to slip from view within the genre. Modern accounts of historical fantasy focus on the men who followed her, notably Kay and Martin. A lot of current readers seem not to have heard of her at all.

She is not a flawless writer: I’m not sure such a thing exists. As mentioned above, her work focuses on aristocrats and kings, and it can be sentimental. The world of the Deryni is largely white, and such characters of color who appear are often stereotyped, though not necessarily unsympathetic. Her main characters are nearly all men. Then again, there are similar problematic elements in the work of the big-name men who have displaced her. Her books are entertaining and well-paced and convey a very strong sense of a realistic world (more so than some of the blood-rape-and-misery books that are currently out there under a “mediaevalist” coating). Her characters are memorable. She remains one of the best writers on faith and magic within fantasy. And she changed the shape of our genre. She was the first, and, as such, she deserves to be more widely recognized and studied.

Like so many women in SF, she should not be suppressed, overwritten, forgotten. She is part of our DNA, and we must not let her be forgotten.

[1] There are a handful of exceptions among more recent writers (Carole McDonnell, Liz Williams, Gene Wolfe, Lois McMaster Bujold), but religion remains largely background in most fantasy today, or is oppositional and Bad.

[2] Katherine Kurtz, in the Introduction to the revised edition of Deryni Rising (Ace, 2004). She was also reading Heinlein, Poul Anderson, Andre Norton, and Marion Zimmer Bradley, the latter two of whom may have influenced her depiction of telepathy, although she avoids the trap of psychic female virgins, which both Norton and Bradley fell into. Additionally, at the time she wrote Deryni Rising, she was studying for a master’s degree in mediaeval history.

[3] Kurtz (2004), “Introduction.”

Kari Sperring is the author of Living with Ghosts (DAW 2009, winner of the 2010 Sydney J Bounds Award, shortlisted for the William L Crawford Award and a Tiptree Award Honor List book) and The Grass King’s Concubine (DAW 2012). As Kari Maund, she’s an academic mediaeval historian, and author of five books on early Welsh, Irish, and Scandinavian history. With Phil Nanson, she is co-author of The Four Musketeers: The True Story of d’Artagnan, Porthos, Aramis and Athos.
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