The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay – Lets Get Mythical

Posted: May 4, 2015 in reading
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Guy Gavriel Kay is, for me, one of the truly great and unusual voices in fantasy. His work has an incredible richness of character and description that keeps me exhilarated through slow paced stories. His use of fantasy to provide slight twists on historical settings, shining light on the roots of our world, is endlessly fascinating.

So it was with a certain trepidation that I started reading The Summer Tree, the first book in Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry. On the one hand, at only 400 pages this would be a relatively quick Kay read, allowing me to enjoy his writing without investing as much time. On the other hand, from what I’d heard this early work did not live up to the standards of his current writing. I settled in with uncertain expectations.

Rich in Myth

The Summer Tree tells the story of five Canadians snatched away from our world and transported to the magical world of Fionavar. There they become involved in a struggle for the future. There is political turmoil in the court of Brennin, a bastion of light and civilisation. Meanwhile, dark forces are returning in the north.

Morally, it’s a less sophisticated narrative than Kay’s later works. There are clear forces of good and evil. We empathise with the good and not the bad. It’s very much a world of myth and legend.

In this regard, it shows the heavy influence of J R R Tolkien, whose Silmarillion Kay had recently helped to edit. Like The Lord of the Rings, there are hints at deeper legends, a large cast of characters both on and off the page, and divine forces lurking in the background.

Characters of Power

Like Tolkien, Kay in the The Summer Tree is concerned with people who have great destinies, however high or low their roots. From before the characters arrive in Fionavar it is clear that they are people of significance there. I’m not a fan of the use of destinies and chosen ones in fantasy, but it is in keeping with the mythical tone of the book.

In terms of empowering people, this book therefore featured two of my least favourite fantasy tropes – destiny and interventionist gods. Yet despite this, I found it engrossing.

A large part of the pleasure comes from the characters. They aren’t all as interesting as each other, and the women in particular feel less well developed, a sin I fall guilty of in some of my own writing. But characters such as Paul Schafer and Prince Diarmuid are rich and fascinating, their existence defined in relation to other people and their pasts, as our own lives are. I really enjoyed spending time with them.

Good by Any Standard

The Summer Tree is a good fantasy novel. The world is well developed, the characters interesting, and the mythical content, while not quite to my tastes, is well executed. Given developments in both fantasy and Kay’s writing since, I’d have trouble calling this great, but compared to the genre in general it is very good, and I look forward to seeing where the story goes.

If that’s got you intrigued, I’ll be discussing this book further later in the week.

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Comments
  1. Sheila Thomas says:

    So glad it did not prove a significant disappointment. I was a bit concerned by your decision not to start with this early series. I started with these as they were they one ones around at the time, and loved them. Maybe I will find them less splendid now. Must find time to re-read the lot!

    • I’m getting near the end of the second book now, and they’re impressing more and more as I go along. As the layers and the characters build up the story’s becoming increasingly fascinating.

      • glenatron says:

        Yes indeed- it would be easy to feel the start is a little unsophisticated, but he layers more and more into it and also reveals elements of tragedy and an unravelling of the past while the story develops.

        • Tragedy definitely seems to be a big theme in this series. I suppose the Arthurian connections hinted at that from the start, but now I’m seeing all manner different tragedies being played out among the characters, and I suspect even the ones apparently averted may come to pass.

  2. […] Wandering Fire picks up some months after The Summer Tree left off. The characters introduced in that book are once more transported from modern Canada to […]

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