…by David Keck
In the Eye of Heaven is high fantasy with a good dose of grit and grime. Set in a mythical medieval Europeanish land, where the oaths of kings and dukes really do tie them to the land, the book recounts the tale of Durand of the Col, a young squire and second son set to inherit a small backwoods holding where he will serve as his father’s bannerman. But then that holding’s true heir shows up after fifteen years missing, and Durand finds himself without prospects. To make matters worse, he’s being stalked by an otherworldly power who seems insistent on offering advice and marking Durand for a different path.
You really can’t blame Durand for panicking and riding off without his sword. He soon falls in with a wandering bard and embarks upon a plan to attach himself to some noble as a knight-in-arms and earn his keep with honor. Of course it’s never quite that easy.
In the Eye of Heaven reminded me of medieval historical texts such on figures like William Marshall and accounts of the Crusaders while also reminiscent of Bernard Cornwell’s historical fiction (the Grail Quest). It’s savage and raw, treating the knights and squires like they probably were – hard and desperate men struggling with the rules and bounds of a chivalric code that both defined and restrained them. Durand and his peers are a flawed mercenary lot, one step from glory and fortune, one step from starvation and despair.
The book also has a strong mythic flavor, with magic and portents and hellspawn beasts – all the good stuff. Keck introduces these magical elements in fits and starts, and he never breaks pov or form to explain them in exhaustive detail. And why should he? His protagonist is an illiterate backwoods warrior who knows what he knows of magic, mythology, and history from oral tradition. Sure the bard and occasional priest make appearances to explain some aspects of the otherworld, but mostly it’s mysterious and messy. Some readers may not appreciate this, instead preferring the D&D method of magic by which everything can be explained with spreadsheets and spell components. I found it refreshing, and the writer has some skill with weaving the unknowable into the narrative with style. I also appreciated that some wizened old graybeard does not show up at the end of the first act to explain how and why this stuff is all happening.
I particularly enjoyed the lost Dukedom of Hesperand, a Faerie-like land filled with cursed lovers, undead warriors, and other strangeness. I also enjoyed how Keck wove the political intrigue and conflict into the more immediate story of Durand and his companions. My one pet peeve, the hoary old destiny card, does rear its head in this book, but it’s neither overpowering nor leaned on as a plot device. It becomes obvious early on that Durand has somehow been marked by the Powers, which only adds to his confusion and difficulties. His perceptions are outside the norm, and his actions have added resonance he cannot fully appreciate. What more can you ask of magic in a fantasy tale? I suppose multiple pov characters would expand this world, and Durand is sort of a plodding knot-head of a warrior, but he’s also fairly sympathetic as a lead character.
So if you’re looking for something other than boilerplate, something with strong historical chops and unexplained magical overtones, In the Eye of Heaven is worth a look.