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