In the Eye of Heaven is a striking if sometimes erratic medieval fantasy debut for David Keck. Keck is another author doing his utmost to steer clear of the genre's most hackneyed clichés. Thus, Heaven earns its biggest kudos for having an identity distinct from the fantasy mainstream. It's just not like most books out there. It also has a plot that might be a bit more elaborate and complex than Keck is realistically ready to tackle on his first outing. So there are some scenes where confusion overtakes the narrative and one feels like an outsider looking in. But these moments are intermittent, and readers are left with an unusual story that rewards the effort.
The most immediate grabber this book has is the haunting and eerie atmosphere that blankets both the narrative and the setting. Keck's world, the kingdom of Errest the Old, indeed feels old. There is a prickly, lived-in texture to every forest, stream, and town we encounter, and everywhere the specters of the past are in evidence. Some of it plays like outright gothic horror, as in the chilling opening scene wherein our hero, young Durand Col, finds himself tracked through dark forest paths by a mysterious entity known as the Traveler. (He can only hear the sound of the Traveler's staff knocking against the ground. It's great.) In other scenes, it seems as if every past sin visited upon a particular duchy or castle is lingering there still.
It's a suitable ambiance, because In the Eye of Heaven is a story all about how hard it can be, yet how necessary, to right one's wrongs. As the curtains rise we see Durand returning to his father's holdings, where he expects to inherit the estate of one of his father's knights, whose own son is believed lost at sea. When said son turns up alive and well, Durand's future plans are dashed. The resentful young man, perhaps rashly, chooses a life of knight-errantry. He hops his horse and leaves, intending to fight in the king's tournaments and win glory on his own.
Immediately it all goes awry. Trouble is afoot everywhere. The king, Ragnal, is close to defaulting on huge loans taken to fund war efforts abroad. Facing ruin, some noblemen are planning outright rebellion. Others are awaiting a meeting at the distant castle of Tern Gyre, where a vote of confidence will be cast. As things stand, about half the nobles plan to vote to continue supporting the king and forgive his debts. Only one vote could sway matters.
Durand unwittingly falls in with a band of knights led by the chief rival to the throne, Radomor. He joins in a gruesome mission in which Radomor avenges himself against his wife's unfaithfulness by imprisoning her and murdering her lover. The whole affair leaves a bad taste in Durand's mouth (especially when, on top of the murders, another lord approaches Radomor to encourage him to join a treasonous coup), and he goes AWOL as quickly as he can. At this point the plot gets a little awkward. By magical means left utterly unexplained, Durand ends up hundreds of miles away at the very tournament he planned to attend. Instead of fighting on his own, he is swept into the service of Lamoric, a disgraced lord who fights in tournaments incognito, disguised as the "Knight in Red," hoping by valorous performance to rehabilitate his reputation.
There are ways to leave things ambiguous in stories that work, and ways that just lead to confusion. In the Eye of Heaven offers a little of both at once. We are aware that there is plenty of supernatural strings-pulling going on here, but Keck is hazy about the details. It's intriguing and frustrating in equal measure. What bugged me most was that the transition in Durand's situation is so abrupt that it requires us to process an entirely new cast of supporting characters while throwing us right into the middle of an already well-underway storyline centered around them. So it takes time to develop a connection to them. For several chapters near the middle of the book, you feel like you're along for the ride but not really part of the action.
Things settle back into place when the course of the plot once again becomes clear, and we follow Durand and Co. as they race against the odds to prevent the murderous Radomor from achieving the throne. All along there are a number of riveting scenes. I loved the concept of an entire haunted country; Lamoric's party must pass through Lost Hesperand, where an infamous betrayal brings back entire armies of the dead to refight in a ghostly tournament for one night. A banquet in which Lamoric's men must take care to eat or drink nothing that is served has a wonderfully spine-chilling quality. Keck also has a distinctive way of injecting his prose with a lot of emotional pain; it's like he can slice right to the core of a character's worst shame.
On the downside, Keck's battle scenes are surprisingly drawn-out and tedious. The book untimately goes on about fifty pages too long, and has a problem with multiple endings in which all looks lost until a "but wait...!" moment happens.
But there's much here that will linger in the memory. In the Eye of Heaven may not work all the time, but when it does, it's a challenging piece of heroic fantasy in which the "heroic" aspect is given a caustic turn. The story may be too grim for many tastes, but it heralds the arrival of a noteworthy new voice in the field.