The Tournament Tour
By Cheryl Morgan
You have to be a little careful with the publicity for fantasy novels these days. The word from Tor about David Keckís In the Eye of Heaven is likely to be that the book features a young man who fights his way up from obscurity to save the world from evil. And yes, that is a plausible summary of the book. But it also makes it sound just like so many other fantasy novels. From the point of view of selling the book to a mass audience it is probably wise to make it sound familiar and predictable. But I know it wonít sell it to you guys, and indeed it would not have sold it to me. The question here has to be, is there anything different and interesting about this book?
Try this for starters. The book is edited by Patrick Nielsen Hayden, who edited three of this yearís Hugo nominees for Best Novel. And while this is, I believe, David Keckís first novel, heís no stranger to the business. His wife, Anne Groell, is a senior editor at Bantam. All of which tends to suggest that Keck is not going to produce something formulaic and dull.
Time for some plot, I think. Our hero, Durand, is the second son of a minor nobleman. He ought perhaps have been sent to the church, but that didnít appeal to him, and in any case his father had hopes. A knight beholden to him looked like he would die without issue. There had been a son, but he had gone off to war and nothing had been heard of him for years. It looked like there would soon be a small village needing a lord. So Durand was sent to train as a knight in expectation of getting land of his own.
Unfortunately for Durand, the missing son turned up. His dreams of lordship were dashed, and there was nothing for it but to become a knight errant. In many ways that is a posh term for "sell sword", but there is the tournament circuit. Young men without money or land can earn fame and fortune on the field of combat. Thus Durand falls in with Lamorick, a dukeís son who is in disgrace and is trying to restore his reputation by fighting anonymously as The Red Knight.
If this sounds a little Arthurian, well indeed it is. Or, more to the point, it is in the tradition of heroic knightly tales from which our modern Arthurian legends are descended. But Keckís tale has a gritty realism to it. Indeed, at times it sounds rather like a story about a sports club on tour: a bunch of young bravos wandering around the country playing a rather dangerous sport for kicks and glory.
Pale knights filed down to meet him, and the air smelled of beeswax. Scores gathered round him, candle-pale and awful in their breathless silence. Without surprise, Durand understood that the strange knights were dead men. He saw empty wounds. They took the lady from his arms as gently as priests, and he knew she would be safe.
Being a fantasy novel, In the Eye of Heaven does have a small amount of magic in it. There are actual bad guys. Lamorick and his crew do end up saving the kingdom from some devious sorcerers. There is also a section of the book set in an enchanted forest, which is a fine Arthurian theme. But victory is obtained primarily through bravery on the tournament field, and by having the good sense to spot what is going on and do something about it while everyone else is obsessed with petty personal political objectives. Only when all seems hopeless (after the bad guys have triumphed through superior knowledge of parliamentary procedure, no less) is magic rather cleverly invoked.
If you are looking for a "more like this" recommendation, In the Eye of Heaven reminded me most of a trilogy of books by Richard Monaco, based around the Parsifal legend, that were published about 30 years back. They brought the same sort of mud and blood-soaked realism to knightly combat. But I guess few of you will have read those books, so all I can say here is that Keck takes a bunch of themes from Arthurian legend (including the love triangle with Lancelot and Guinevere) and uses them to make a story that is entirely his own and a refreshing change from the dull and predictable fantasy of which we see so much these days.