Last summer, I read all of Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical fantasy novels that had been published up until then (River of Stars was only published this year), but a large blank spot was left in the Kay canon where I had not read. This blank spot was The Fionavar Tapestry. An epic fantasy trilogy published the 1980s, The Fionavar Tapestry is still a much appreciated and remembered trilogy, described by an Interzone reviewer as “the only fantasy book I know which does not suffer in comparison to The Lord of the Rings.”
I have now read The Fionavar Tapestry, and will be posting book reviews of each book over the next few weeks.
Those who were first introduced to Kay through his historical fantasy novels will find the routes of some of his ideas in this early trilogy. For example, Kay picked up on the importance of names in ancient cultures while writing The Fionavar Tapestry and used those ideas in Tigana. Also, the relationship between mages and their sources, which features prominently in The Fionavar Tapestry, gets explored in Alessan’s relationship to Erlein di Senzio in Tigana. Many of the themes of history, remembrance, and the price of power are consistent across the books Kay has written, right up to Under Heaven. Kay mentions his inspirations in his many interviews.
But now onto the first book of the trilogy, The Summer Tree.
Five University of Toronto students get transported to Fionavar, the first of all worlds, after a reclusive lecturer on Celtic studies, Lorenzo Marcus, turns out to be Loren Silvercloak, a mage from the kingdom of Brennin. The students are Kimberly Ford, an intern at a hospital, Kevin Lane and Dave Martyniuk, who are law students, the latter on a basketball team, Jennifer Lowell, who was once Kevin’s lover, and Paul Schafer, a solitary man who is mourning his girlfriend, Rachel. The band of ordinary people, are transported to the first of all lands by Loren and his source Matt Sören, as entertainment for the celebration of the fiftieth year of High King Ailell’s reign.
Once in Fionavar, it becomes apparent that a great evil is stirring, as svart alfar, which are like dark elves, are spotted near Ailell’s castle. Kim Ford comes to a sacred lake and becomes the protegee of Ysanne, the Seer of Brennin, and becomes introduced to her own destiny, which is to become a Seer herself. Paul Schafer plays a chess game with the High King and learns about the price of power, and embarks on his solitary journey toward the Summer Tree, where he receives his ultimate test of endurance. Kevin Lane becomes a loyal follower of Prince Diarmuid, the sardonic and anarchic prince who attempts to seduce Sharra, the Black Rose of Cathal. Dave, however, is lost in the crossing, and lands somewhere else in Fionavar, eventually finding kinship among the horse-riding, eltor-hunting Dalrei tribesmen.
Each of the lives of the Toronto students are a thread woven into the tapestry of the Weaver, and their paths intersect and part ways, forming the shape of an intricate and interconnected narrative. Eventually, war comes from north, where the stirrings of Rakoth Maugrim the Unraveller, the foe of the Tapestry and enemy of Light, first become apparent. War is declared, and there is no hint that the coming war will be won easily, without significant personal sacrifices that cannot be undone.
The first part of the novel whizzes by fast and you have to learn about the characters on the run. My initial impression was that everyone except for Dave was failing to express the scepticism that one should expect from real citizens of the late twentieth century. But after I had read quite deeply into the series, I realized that Kay was trying for something else. Fionavar is the land where citizens of all the other universes can fulfill their true destinies, so the Torontonians must have been apprehending the significance of Fionavar intuitively, even in the early chapters. Their destinies were tugging at their consciousnesses even in our own world.
Weaving fate into a novel is a clever way to stop readers from questioning the plot, and promoting the suspension of disbelief. Kay uses it without referring explicitly to prophecies, and the effect is subtler.
On the whole, The Summer Tree is a fine first novel, and promises many great things to follow in the rest of the series. In his afterword to the 2006 omnibus edition of The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay jokingly says he wanted to write an novel of such epic scope that he could get away with writing a sentence that reads, “Rain, rain, rain, rain, rain.” He does, in fact, do this. And for that, and what it implies about the quality of the rest of the series, I would say he contributed significantly to the Tolkienian tradition in his first published novel—not a mean accomplishment. Though in another writer’s hands, such an epic might have come out overblown or artificial, or too “Dungeons and Dragons”-ish, Kay uses grief and sacrifice to convey the unsettling nature of fulfilling one’s destiny in Fiovavar, and thus constructs a kind of escape that is not escapism.
Douglas Barbour described The Fionavar Tapestry as “the kind of escape that brings you home.” It brings the characters, and you, the reader, right to the unpleasant and uncomfortable center of things, the struggles of your own world, in your own soul, magnified in significance when they are fought in the first of all worlds, of which all the other worlds are but shadows, or reflections.
Not bad for a few Canadians, eh? Seriousness aside, I found much humour in imagining Dave teaching the Dalrei how to play hockey, but that’s not in the book. Probably a good thing too. (Perhaps, the Toronto Maple Leafs would be able to win the Stanley Cup at last, in Fionavar.) Also, a little humour in how Paul Schafer is also the name of the bald musician at the keyboards on The Late Show with David Letterman (though I think it’s spelled differently). But that is neither here nor there …
Next, see my review of The Wandering Fire.