The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay

the-summer-tree-by-guy-gavriel-kay coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: New American Library
Published: 1986
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by David Hart

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This is the first of the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, the others being The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. This is a trilogy in the sense of one story spread over three books; they are not at all stand-alone.

Fionavar is a world of men, dwarfs and alfar, demigods and gods. It is somehow First among the universes, and what happens there eventually affects all the others. It is there that for 1000 years the evil god Rakoth Maugrim has been bound; but not for much longer. Yes, this is High Fantasy, good versus evil, heroic deeds and betrayals. If you hate such things, stop reading now as this trilogy is not for you. If you love High Fantasy and haven’t read the Fionavar Tapestry, skip this review and read the books; they are first class.

The book starts in Toronto, where five university students meet Lorien Silvercloak. He is a mage sent to invite five people from Earth to attend a celebration in Fionavar. This is perhaps a slight weakness in the book. It is something of a cliche to start a fantasy here and quickly shift to a different universe. And we encounter all five students at once, with the result that the first time I read the book it took a while before I could distinguish between them. However it is not long before everyone is in Fionavar, meeting people and becoming entangled with them and their problems.

Let me get out of the way my other criticism: halfway through, just after events of great power and emotion, the viewpoint shifts north and the intensity drops for a while. Had Kay interwoven the two story-lines, I suspect the book would have read better.

Apart from those two minor complaints, everything else about the book is perfect. The setting is a complex, richly-described world complete with historical and mythical detail. The main plot is of high quality, and the human-interest sub-plots even better. Better still is the characterisation. A feature of all Kay’s work that the number of major characters he creates. Some authors provide three protagonists plus sundry spear-carriers. Here Kay has produced fifteen primary characters to date, with more to come in the next two books. And it’s not just breadth, he excels too at depth. Each character is made to feel real, complete. Kay also supplies credible female characters, and gives them major roles in the story.

In all Kay’s work the writing is excellent without being intrusive. Here it is almost lyrical at times, in those emotive scenes where it is appropriate. Which is something you should know about the book: this is the sort of story that grabs you, engages your emotions. People get hurt, even the main characters; keep your kleenex to hand. But this intensity is only episodic. At other times the emotional level is more normal, often with gentle humour.

It is difficult to believe, but this is Kay’s first published book. For most authors, first means substandard, the quality improving as they gain experience. Kay is an exception to this rule; he has produced a first work of excellence. Read it.

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