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Thursday, February 14, 2008

"In the Eye of Heaven" + "In a Time of Treason" by David Keck

Official David Keck Website
Order “In A Time of TreasonHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE

Because of Colleen aka La Gringa of The Swivet, I’ve been introduced to some pretty impressive fantasy titles like David Anthony Durham’sAcacia”, Jeffrey Overstreet’sAuralia’s Colors”, and Gregory Frost’sShadowbridge”. So when I received a package from her endorsing David Keck’s debut “In the Eye of Heaven” and its forthcoming sequel “In a Time of Treason” (February 19, 2008), I was pretty stoked. Then the mixed reviews for “In the Eye of Heaven” started popping up—SFFWorld, Graeme’s Fantasy Book Review, Neth Space, OF Blog of the Fallen—and I began to have some doubts. But since Colleen hasn’t let me down yet, I just decided to read “In the Eye of Heaven” and see for myself. And you know what…I couldn’t put the book down and as soon as I finished it I just tore through “In a Time of Treason”. In short, while it was always my intention to review “In the Eye of Heaven” and its sequel “In a Time of Treason” together, I have to admit that I was pleasantly surprised at just how much I enjoyed both of David’s books:

1)In the Eye of Heaven” – April 4, 2006. In this debut, David Keck introduces readers to Errest the Old, a kingdom heavily influenced by medieval Europe complete with dukes, barons, fiefdoms, knights, a Christian-like religion, rich mythology, and a high king. Unlike the Middle Ages though, the land is teeming with the supernatural and stories about the Banished and the Lost and the First Ones are much more than mere myths. For the boundary between Creation and the Otherworld is extremely thin and only by the oaths of the High King and the blessings of the sanctuaries are the Banished warded from roaming the land.

Into this setting we have Durand Col, a baron’s second son who has been serving as a page and shield-bearer for fourteen years and is on the cusp of knighthood and an inheritance—that is, until unexpected events suddenly leave Durand with an unstable future. From here, Durand sets off on his own to see what kind of life he can lead as a knight-errant—or sellsword—and stumbles into a journey that will destroy his innocence, test the limits of his loyalty, and find him fighting for the whole kingdom…

Looking at other reviews, the biggest complaint I’ve seen has been the writing and I can see where readers are coming from. For one, the prose is fairly economical and lacks any sort of distinguishing style. Descriptions and background information meanwhile, are held to a minimum which makes some things difficult to understand like the landscape itself. Heck, it wasn’t until I finished the sequel that I really began to comprehend the connection between the sanctuaries, Creation, the Otherworld, the High King and the Banished. And even when the author does introduce some details about the world or the mythology, the passages either felt forced or seemed to drop in at odd moments adding to the confusion. On top of that, it was hard to emotionally connect with Durand or any of the supporting characters, and part of that I think was the author’s decision to write strictly in a third-person point-of-view from Durand’s perspective rather than a first-person or through multiple narratives. In short, because of these deficiencies I can understand why some readers had trouble with David’s debut. That said, I think if you can look past the book’s structural issues, you’ll discover that “In the Eye of Heaven” has some really special qualities.

For despite all of the problems mentioned above, there were a number of things that I really liked about the book. One was the excellent pacing. In a word, I would describe “In the Eye of Heaven” as intense. In fact, between the breakneck pace, the jarring narrative and the minimalist style, I was reminded of the Matt Damon/Bourne movies. Like those films, “In the Eye of Heaven” isn’t flashy, it’s grounded by a sense of realism—even with all of the supernatural aspects, and the action sequences are just breathtaking, particularly the melees. Speaking of realism, I just loved the little details that David injects into the novel to authenticate the setting like the yellow teeth, the constant harassment of fleas, the bleakness of a sellsword’s life, the brutality of a tournament, et cetera. After all, whenever I think of knights I usually think of shining armor, chivalry and glory, but the reality is much harsher & filthier and David does a beautiful job of capturing that truth. Another thing that impressed me was the lack of infodumping. While it wasn’t executed very well, I can understand the author’s intentions and thought it was a refreshing change of pace from most traditional fantasy novels. I was also impressed with Durand as a protagonist. Aside from some prophetic omens and an ancient lineage, Durand isn’t your typical hero. He’s not blessed with superhuman abilities, he commits atrocities, has sinful thoughts, frequently gets injured and doesn’t always succeed… Lastly, I absolutely loved the concept of a world where life, death and the supernatural coexist as closely as it does in Errest. Granted, David doesn’t always do a good job of letting readers understand the workings of this world, but the eerie & surreal manner in which he depicts the Otherworld, the Banished and the Lost is to be applauded.

As far as the actual story, “In the Eye of Heaven” is best described as heroic adventure with the majority of the plot dealing with knights and their games. Of course, there’s also a conspiracy against the King of Errest, some Shakespearean-like drama between a number of the characters and their families, court politics, lots of mystical occurrences like Lost Hesperand, and the beginning of what looks to be a tragic love story, but it’s the tournaments that rule the novel…

2)In a Time of Treason” – February 19, 2008. As much as I enjoyed the author’s debut, I admit that it was a flawed effort so I was quite happy to see how improved the writing was in “In a Time of Treason”. Namely, the prose was more elegant, the descriptions better expressed, there was a lot more background information without the author relying on shameless infodumping, and overall David just displayed greater confidence as a writer. Even so, the writing wasn’t perfect. There are still passages that are confusing and may require a re-read or two, the limiting third-person narrative is still in effect, and the plotting is a bit uneven. On the flipside, the pacing is just as strong as last time—if anything “In a Time of Treason” is even more intense than David’s debut—and the novel just exudes with ambiance. The story itself was a lot stronger too I thought. While “In the Eye of Heaven” was a fun and exciting read with its knights and its tournaments, the book felt like one of those summer action flicks—full of adventure, but lacking any real depth or soul. “In a Time of Treason” on the other hand is dealing with open war where the lives of thousands hang in the balance, not to mention weightier subplots like Durand being torn between loyalty for his master and the love he feels for his liege lord’s wife, King Ragnal’s stunning betrayal against his people, Radomor’s arrogant attempt at the throne, a traitor amongst Durand’s closest allies, and a sorcerous plot to free the Banished from their thousand-year-old bonds that goes farther back than anyone can imagine. In other words, there’s much more at stake this time around and “In a Time of Treason” reflects that with its darker and more atmospheric tone…

Conclusion: David Keck’s debut is one of those novels that shows off a lot of potential, but is fundamentally flawed by inconsistent writing, worldbuilding and plotting. Still, if you can get past these problems then “In the Eye of Heaven” has much to offer like its unconventionalism, the harsh authenticity of the world, incredible action sequences, and a story that could appeal to fans of Glen Cook and David Gemmell. Even better, the payoff is just tremendous because the sequel is more powerful, more thrilling, and more rewarding than its predecessor and is a major reason why I recommend giving “In the Eye of Heaven” a shot. In the end, despite the mixed reception and the books’ obvious problems, I immensely enjoyed David Keck’s debut, I loved his sequel “In a Time of Treason” even more, and I absolutely can’t to see how it all ends in “A King of Cobwebs”…


SQT said...

And to think, "In the Eye of Heaven" had just been sitting on my shelf. It sounds like my kind of book.

Graeme Flory said...

I'm just finishing 'In a Time of Treason' now and should hopefully have a review up tomorrow. It's not perfect by any means but a big improvement on 'In the Eye of Heaven'

Unknown said...

I enjoyed your honest review, Robert. It looks like something I should check out from the library.

Robert said...

Theresa, I actually bought "In the Eye of Heaven" when it first came out way back in 2006, so I can't believe it took me so long to read it :)

Graeme, looking forward to your review of "In a Time of Treason"...

Chris, thanks! The book is definitely worth a look. Sure, you may not like it, but then again, you may :D

Anonymous said...

I loved these books. I'm 15 and I thought they were excellent. While the books did envolve me to think, it was exactly what I was looking for in a a book. Can't wait for the third!


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