It happened again! I finished a book by an author I hadn’t read, and my TBR-pile suddenly expanded with potentially 10 volumes. It’s daunting, yet comforting too: despite me writing a fair share of lukewarm reviews of supposed classics & books that are generally praised, it seems unlikely that I’ll run out of good books soon. The Summer Tree is the debut of Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay, and the first book of The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. It is not an original book, but it’s a genuine treat nonetheless.
Kay borrows heavily from lots of sources: the Fionavar world resembles Tolkien’s (the greedy dwarves are in decline, there are graceful, near immortal elves, and there’s the threat of a dark, powerful god once defeated returning), Zelazny’s Amber (an original first world with a pattern of which all other worlds, including our Earth, are shadowy reflections), and generally myths from around the world, like the theme of a barren, dry land made fertile again by the sacrifice of the King, described at the end of the 19th century by Frazer in the classic, highly influential study The Golden Bough – a theme central to the story of this volume.
The fact that Frazer sprang to my mind is no coincidence: The Summer Tree is steeped in the Romantic tradition, as is, arguably, most – if not all – high fantasy. So, why, despite the fact that one can make a pretty solid case for this book to be generic in most of its aspects, was I blown away by it? I think because Kay manages to convey one of the key aspects of a Romantic worldview so, so well: we, mortal humans, are part of a vast Whole that is mysterious, ancient, uncaring and unforgiving. This Whole determines us, but at the same time we determine parts of the Whole too. We cannot expect the Whole to do our bidding, that we have to do ourselves. In acknowledging this, and in doing this bidding, living our lives, there is heroism and honor to be found.
He said that the worlds had not been woven to be a battleground for powers outside time, and that if Maugrim were to be mastered, it would be by the Children, with only mildest intercession of the gods.
What did it matter why? It didn’t, clearly, except that at the end we only have ourselves anyway, wherever it comes down.
The best moments in this book occur when the main characters struggle with themselves. Five Canadian university students are transported by a mage to a magic realm, and discover they are heroes too. Part of fantasy’s appeal is that it temporarily restores the link between us – 21st century Westerners, reading with the fridge not far away, generally not accustomed to killing food ourselves, let alone war – and the nature of Reality (that Whole), nature itself, the inevitable law of kill or be killed, and the inevitability of Death – which makes merely being alive an heroic Wonder. That is perhaps the most paradoxical thing about top-tier literary fantasy: it reconnects us with reality using made up worlds.
The fact that the most chilling, emotional pages deal with loss, guilt and self-sacrifice only confirms and strengthens this link. So, yes, this book is parts generic, but through its characters it slowly but steadily reveals deep truths about another set of clichés: love, friendship, guilt, hope, loss, family, failure, life. And dancing. It’s not about a typical binary battle between good & evil at all. Without a lot of words, Kay masterfully manages to evoke emotions and psychological complexity.
Dave took a careful breath. His reflexive anger giving way to the old sorrow. “Dad, please believe me – it didn’t happen that way. (…)”
Kevin finished his tea. He kissed his father on the forehead and went up to bed in the grip of a sadness that was new to him, and a sense of yearning that was not.
Resting his own ringless, fine-boned hands on the railing, he gazed out and down at the denuded garden below. He stood there, looking about him, but not really seeing: the inner landscape demanded its due.
Of course, the sceptic reader frowns when reading me writing “psychological complexity”: real life students magically transported to another realm indeed wouldn’t act as gullible as they do, so the beginning of The Summer Tree might hinder your suspension of belief – but ultimately this book isn’t about being true to life, but about being true to Life.
Kay is a master in other things too: the prose is excellent, there’s a timeless, mythic quality to it, the tension builds up marvelously: information is revealed and new mysteries are introduced at the right times, and there’s enough wonder and imagination next to all the appropriated stuff.
The funny thing is that some authors try their very best to be original, come up with elaborate magic systems, stranger-than-thou world building and the likes (Sanderson springs to mind), but in the end still write pulpy stuff. Guy Gavriel Kay on the other hand uses worn & tattered building blocks, but the way he piles them up produces magic castles of real & profound splendor.
Parts of this book gutted me emotionally. I’ll read The Wandering Fire sooner than later. Highly recommended, like in ‘5 out of 5 stars’.
– coda –
Coincidentally, after reading The Summer Tree, I read Theory, a poem by Wallace Stevens, from his 1923 debut Harmonium. Somehow, it feels right to end this review with that. Enjoy.
I am what is around me.
Women understand this.
One is not duchess
A hundred yards from a carriage.
These, then are portraits:
A black vestibule;
A high bed sheltered by curtains.
These are merely instances.