The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay
Much like Elizabeth Bear, Guy Gavriel Kay is a fantasy writer I’ve often heard of, but never actually read. The Summer Tree has been on my reading list since the beginning, having been recommended in Nancy Pearl’s Book Lust, from which I drew up the original list. After suffering through The White Plague, I thought the slim (well, to me) The Summer Tree would be a perfect palette cleanser.
The Summer Tree starts off in our world–Toronto college students Kim, Paul, Kevin, Jennifer, and David attend a lecture by brilliant and reclusive Doctor Lorenzo Marcus. By a stroke of luck, Marcus invites them to his hotel room after the lecture. Once there, Marcus reveals that is actually Loren Silvercloak, a Mage of Brennin, the High Kingdom of Fionavar, the original world of which Earth is merely a reflection. Loren invites them to Brennin to celebrate fifty years of the King’s reign; two weeks at the most. But fate has something much more important in plan for these students…
I cannot think of any other fantasy novel that I might consider dated. This is because our main characters are Canadians fresh from 1982. It’s not overwhelming and there’s no problem once we get to Fionavar, but it occasionally peaks through and shows its age. (Kim considers returning home and going New Wave in one of her awkward moments of levity.) There’s also the unfortunate implication that the Dalrei, who are heavily influenced by Native Americans, are white, which I chose to ignore in favor of common sense. But these are few and far in between–when we’re in the thick of things, the five simply seem contemporary against a fantastical backdrop.
All modern fantasy owes something to Tolkien–I often describe it as pre-Tolkien fantasy and post-Tolkien fantasy. It’s absolutely no wonder that Kay’s creation does–he assisted Christopher Tolkien in editing and compiling The Silmarrilion. To be totally honest, there’s only a few glaring Tolkienesque touches. The men of Fionavar came over the sea, and the elves, at their ends, go back over. Particularly, Kay misses an opportunity for innovation with the lios alfar and svart alfar. In Kay’s constructed language, they are the Children of the Light and the Children of the Dark–an opportunity for a pair of different races with a common origin. But they’re essentially just elves and orcs.
I usually judge world building by how long it takes to feel real–while it takes a while, Kay does end up balancing his modern characters with a solid fantasy world. The constructed language is very accessible but not too easy, the countries are nicely diverse (I liked Cathal, a blend of Spain and the Middle East), and the court politics are complex but not deviously so. I especially liked the system of magic, which pits feminine earth magic (also called blood magic, due to the sacrifices necessary) against masculine sky magic, which has political ramifications. Where Kay really shines is the history and the divine pantheon of Fionavar. I especially loved the story of Lisen of the Wood, which tied all these things together. While it’s certainly Tolkienesque, it’s still original.
The thing I hate in serial speculative fiction is incomplete installments (oh, The Innocent Mage!) and The Summer Tree neatly avoids that. While the climax is a little weak, it’s still there, and the proceedings end on a cliffhanger that makes you want grab the second book of The Fionavar Tapestry. The pace of the plot increases as events grow grimmer, and the three days of the Stranger Pwyll on the Summer Tree are just about perfect, hitting a balance between modern minds in a solidly executed fantasy setting. It’s a good story.
All of the Fionavar characters are well executed–I can’t really pick a favorite, actually! They’re all very human but a little more noble than the modern characters. The modern characters take a little while to catch on–while I liked Paul and Kevin from the start (their friendship is especially touching), the other three take time. While I enjoyed watching Dave come into his own among the Dalrei, Kim awkwardly alternates between a sensitive young woman discovering her destiny and an awkward young woman making awkwarder attempts to lighten things up. Jennifer never really endears herself to the reader, which is probably why Kay uses her like does. It’s a shame, because we spend a lot of time with them–I hope the modern women mature in later books in the series.
Bottom line: A Tolkienseque but still original fantasy, The Summer Tree takes a little while to find its footing, but the plot is solid–too bad the female leads aren’t as solid. Definitely worth a read.
I rented this from the public library.