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When you read as many books as I do, you tend to run into a problem with series fiction. If you read each book as it comes out, then that usually means a year or so has passed between volumes. So reading a series' second volume can often mean you're floundering around lost for several chapters desperately trying to remember who everyone is and what's been going on, especially if you've read, say, sixty other books in the interim and the writer in question feels no particular need to ease you back into his universe.

David Keck is that sort of writer. I had a devil of a time getting into In a Time of Treason, and it was only by virtue of re-reading my review of In the Eye of Heaven that I was able to settle into the narrative to any degree at all. Heaven was a fairly impressive if not always reader-friendly debut. Keck created an intriguingly grungy world in which virtually the entire land and its peoples seemed burdened under a pall of impending doom. Treason continues the saga in much the same vein. Yet it's the very effectiveness of Keck's evocation of his world's pain and despair that the book is such a Sisyphean chore to read. I only finished it through sheer force of will, and my feeling when it was over was mostly one of relief. Keck may well have done some excellent storytelling here, but this is neither a pleasurable nor entertaining reading experience. To be blunt, it's mostly a sumptuously mounted boregasm.

Much of the problem lies in something fairly common to epic fantasy: a focus on plot at the expense of character. Keck is indeed attentive to the development of his beleaguered hero, Durand Col. But we never really feel much empathy or affinity with him. It's as if he's some sort of test subject in human endurance, and we the godlike observers from afar, watching through a veil through which no real emotional link can pass.

It's a pity, as Durand's story contains the seeds of what could potentially be a powerhouse of tragedy. Durand is pledged to his liege lord, Lamoric, heir to the seat of Gireth. But he is in love with Lamoric's wife, Deorwen, and she with him. When King Ragnal goes all paranoiac and begins imprisoning every nobleman he can lay his hands on, Durand helps Lamoric and Deorwen escape capture by the proverbial skins of their teeth. Fleeing to Lamoric's father's castle in Acconel, the capital of Gireth, Durand and his companions arrive just in time for an invasion by the ambitious and ruthless Duke of Yrlac, Radomor, whose plans Durand helped thwart in book one. The bulk of the book involves huge battle scenes as the host of Acconel attempt to hold off and defeat Radomor against nearly insurmountable odds, and the countryside comes alive with evil supernatural portents.

The theme of treason, as per the title, plays large in the story. There are Durand's conflicted feelings of his loyalty to Lamoric warring with his desire for Deorwen. And this is set against the larger canvas of a kingdom coming apart at the seams, as Radomor's treachery and power are so great that he is able to lead otherwise loyal allies of Gireth's into treachery as well, mostly through magic-based threats and intimidation. Poor Durand is one of the most put-upon heroes in modern fantasy. The man gets beaten about so much I was surprised he hadn't suffered permanent brain damage halfway through the book. Compounding Durand's difficulties is Deorwen's annoying habit of insisting on following him like a puppy into just about every battle and every dangerous situation he faces. (Would she really abandon her little daughter so often and so readily?)

Keck, for all the hard work he has put into constructing this elaborate narrative, never really sells the romance effectively. The fact that the love between Durand and Deorwen can never be consummated ought to hit us like a knife to the heart. But Keck doesn't have what it takes to make us feel that connection, so most of the time, you tend of think of Deorwen as this stupid nuisance who'd make life easier for everyone if she'd just go away. Tip to writers: if you want me to care what happens to the heroine, make me love her almost as much as the hero does. Deorwen — well, color me indifferent.

Apart from Durand, most of Keck's cast come across as the standard compliment of fighters and knights and sorcerers and innocent children who represent everything our heroes are trying to save that you see in any number of epic fantasies. It seems unfair to have to critique the book on those grounds, as Keck is by no means producing what the jaded among us call "extruded fantasy product." But the fact that the characters do not really stand out or inspire much of a personal investment on the reader's part tends to hamper enjoyment of what is already a difficult and demanding piece of writing.

Keck is not a writer to be dismissed, but his work is so grim and unwelcoming I think many readers will find him off-putting. I'm certainly not saying that good fantasy has to be all fluffy bunnies and sweetness and light — indeed, I prefer a risk-taking writer who's willing to flout expectations and explore the heart of darkness, as it were. But making that work involves not just intellectual involvement, but allowing the reader an emotional stake in the outcome as well. Once Keck has that down, he'll be producing fantasies to rank with the best of them.