The OF Blog: David Keck, In a Time of Treason

Friday, January 25, 2008

David Keck, In a Time of Treason

David Keck's first novel, In the Eye of Heaven, debuted in 2006 to mixed reviews. Some praised the book for being "gritty" (or as I would put it, not enamored with the trappings of a mythical medieval era), with a main character, soon-to-be-knighted Durand Col, that was unassuming and more of an Everyman than a prototypical hero. Others felt confused by the opening sections of the novel, which did feel a bit vertiginous in places when I first read it almost a year ago. These detractors noted how Durand's personality just seemed to be such a reaction to the Hero stereotype that he just seemed to be little more than a passive observer in a confusing, twisting, sometimes hard to fathom war between feudal forces.

It took a second read of In the Eye of Heaven earlier last weekend for me to decide if I even wanted to read its sequel, In a Time of Treason. But when I decided to leave aside my own preconceptions (or rather, my post-conceptions, in this case) and accepted that Keck wanted to achieve a muddied state of affairs for this first novel, my opinion of the first book rose from it being a dog's supper of a story to a flawed, but ultimately intriguing novel with enough plot elements set in place to hold out some hope that In a Time of Treason would be at least a solid, decent read.

My expectations were surpassed in this novel. Compared to the confusing plot developments of the first novel, where the characters seemed to be so wrapped in the "fog of war" that the reader could barely decipher what was transpiring beyond a very "local" level, events in In a Time of Treason are much clearer. Durand's lord, Lord Lamoric, is still engaged in fighting off the rather dark and sinister Duke of Yrlac, who is still trying to woo the lords of the land to supplant the king and to place Yrlac on the throne. But yet the king's edicts have estranged him from the majority of the lords and Lamoric faces longer odds. But beyond that treason lies the hint of another about to bloom into full force: that of Durand's smoldering passion for Lamoric's bride, Deorwen.

This love affair, which has been developing throughout the two books, creates such a tension within Durand as to make his hitherto bland character into a conflicted, dynamic one. It is his interactions with Deorwen that drives this story, making it more than just another cod-medieval fantasy/political thriller. If In the Eye of Heaven focused on the rites of passage in becoming a knight errant, In a Time of Treason takes an equally ancient story, that of the Lancelot-Guinevere tragedy, and explores its boundaries a bit further. Although formula misused or overdone can ruin a story's suspense, there are times with a formulaic approach towards character/plot development is called for and this was such a case, as Keck's story grabbed my attention and held it much longer when the Durand-Deorwen dynamic took center stage.

This is not to say that the novel is brilliant. Keck's sparse writing style sometimes leads the reader wanting more and on a few occasions, the similes just do not work the way Keck intends for them to do. Below is a passage from the Advance Review Copy edition and while it should not be read as being "definitive," I believe it'll give the idea here:

The tottering procession wound its way from the cliff top of Burrstone Walls to the hovels of Burrstone Landing. The livestock was still indoors, but they passed millstones. Of the thousands cut from the old pits, some slender fraction had fetched up along the roads each year broken. Now, wheels like moldy cheese were heaped by the hundred. Some were cracked, some split, others were lost under carpets of moss and sod. This was Burrstone. (ARC p. 28, Ch. 4)
Ignoring the obvious places for correction (after all, ARCs are often riddled with typographical errors, omissions, etc.), I still found the effect of that small passage to be rather "off" in the sense that while Keck obviously is hinting at a rather run-down and abandoned place, the wheel-cheese simile just didn't work for me; it was a bit too ambiguous and it broke up the rather direct descriptions found elsewhere in that small passage. Many parts of the book are like this. It is irritating, but not a dealbreaker in terms of whether or not I would enjoy the story as a whole. As I said above, the strengths of the novel are really good, as Durand's personality is much more conflicted and thus more "human" than in the first novel. The action is clearer and it is easier to follow the plot progressions without feeling that one has read it a dozen times before. The conclusion was plausible and left me curious to know what will happen next in the third volume. However, the writing still needs work if the series is going to continue to hold the interest of readers. While it certainly is better than in In the Eye of Heaven, there were places where the pacing and the prose lagged in In a Time of Treason. Perhaps the third volume will continue to see growth in this department. Mildly Recommended.

Publication Date: February 19, 2008 (US), Hardcover.

Publisher: Tor Books


RobB said...

Heh, sounds like you glanced over my review and the discussion about IN THE EYE OF HEAVEN at SFFWorld.

Seriously though, kudos to giving him a second shot. I certainly won't.

Overall, like most of your reviews, this is a pretty fair overview.

Larry said...

I glanced over a half-dozen reviews, including yours, before writing it. It's a habit of mine to do so before writing a review, in case there are points of agreement/disagreement that I'd like to touch upon. And no, I wouldn't recommend you giving him a second shot, considering your reaction to the first book, as I highly doubt your opinion would improve that much ;)

Robert said...

Well, I hope to read both of David's books back-to-back, but if I don't like the first one enough, that plan might just backfire ;) I guess I'll have to wait and see...

Larry said...

It's very much a polarizing book, based on the comments from authors and reviewers alike. What one loves, another will hate, and all that. It might be best to read both of them back-to-back, but there is that risk that the strain might be too much...

troyvit said...

Larry - I see what you mean re: a polarizing book. I relished the confusion of the first. To me it reflected Durand's confusion. It felt more realistic that way. That said, I might pass on this second book. The love triangle was to me an unnecessary annoyance in the first book. If it's the driving force of the second I think I'll just get bored.

Larry said...


While the love triangle certainly plays a role in this book, the political intrigues get a bit more of the front-and-center action. But if that element is annoying, I would suggest waiting until the paperback next year or perhaps if a copy is in your local library.

Mr Beckett said...

As many of these reviews reveal, most fantasy readers require the Tolkein prototype; a well-thought out world that "makes sense" to the modern reader. While I appreciate that as well as the next guy, David Keck's writing is the closest thing I've found to the style of the Arthurian Romance. It captures that feeling of being between the worlds of reality and fantasy that one finds in the works of Chretien de Troyes, the Vulgate Cycle and Malory. Things happen that are left unexplained. Ghostly enchantments bring to mind the court of the Fisher King and the procession of the grail. What does it all mean? As the reader, we're never really sure, but we're left feeling, like Durand, as if we too have been enchanted.

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