The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy declines in quality throughout. It’s not a big decline, but a decline it is. The Summer Tree is spectacular. The Wandering Fire is still top-notch, yet the first book remains the better. The Darkest Road however doesn’t merit 5 out of 5 stars anymore: let’s say a solid 3.5 instead.
Using a word like “decline” in the first paragraph doesn’t do these books justice, so let me be loud & clear: taken as a whole, The Fionavar Tapestry is highly recommended, and one of the classic series of the genre.
I’ll briefly formulate a few reasons that made reading the third book the lesser experience: there’s a structural issue, a prose problem, and one plot weakness. I’ll conclude with writing a bit about the main theme and Kay’s metaphysics.
Most of what I wrote in the reviews of the first and second book remains true. The Darkest Road doesn’t change style or substance. Since I loved what Kay wrote in the first two books, that’s mainly a strength, but maybe it’s a weakness too, as book three is more of the same. It doesn’t add a lot to the previous two books. While The Wandering Fire deepened the world and the characters, The Darkest Road simply follows the story to its expected conclusion: a big battle. Not that that battle plays out fully as expected, but still, The Darkest Road is very much a concluding volume, neatly tying every narrative thread.
The only character that really gets more depth is Galadan, Wolflord of the andain – a half god supporting the Dark. We get to learn more about the motivations for his nihilism, and while rejected love may be standard fare, Kay manages to convey these emotions in the same way I explained in my review of The Wandering Fire. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the pages that feature him are among the best of the entire trilogy.
The book’s biggest weakness are its first 150 pages – about one third of the 424 page total. Most of these pages consist of characters bringing other characters up to speed about the events at the end of book two. As most readers will have read book two, it is not always that interesting. Even more so because of a particularity of The Fionavar Tapestry I haven’t mentioned yet: the trilogy is told from numerous point of views, and Kay’s most often used technique is to jump back a bit in time to show the same scene through the eyes of another character. What we get then in the first 150 pages – at times – is the retelling of events of one character to a group of characters, followed by the reactions of those characters one by one reliving that retelling. It makes for a nuanced whole, yes, but a bit repetitive and tiresome too.
The biggest weakness of the plot has to do with the motivations of the Dwarves. The reason why Kaen and Blöd – two brothers that rule the dwarf kingdom – align themselves with the Dark are explained, but to me that felt haphazard, and not fleshed out enough. What was especially lacking were the ways how they managed to convince their entire race to join Rakoth Maugrim, the Sauron of this epic. Dwarves seem anything but naive in Kay’s story, so I don’t see them convinced by some promises of an entity that is known as evil and untrustworthy.
Others and myself have lauded Kay’s prose. The writing in The Darkest Road remains excellent, with clear, simple, elegant sentences. But this time there was a bit too much repetition: there’s only so many times one can use the image of a blood soaked piece of clothing to indicate the fury of battle. It may be that Kay chose to do this to strengthen the mythic quality of his prose, but I think he shouldn’t have. I also didn’t come across truly poetic images such as I quoted in my previous reviews. Maybe I didn’t pay enough attention, could be, the summer sun bringing high temperatures makes for less concentrated reading.
The Darkest Road of the title is the path Darien must take. I won’t go into who Darien is, as that would spoil too much, but his is a choice between good and evil. I already talked about predestination and freedom in my review of The Wandering Fire, but this book adds a few things that need discussion.
Basically, it shows Kay’s struggle with the concept of free will. More and more scientist and philosophers acknowledge that the freedom of choice is an illusion, to such an extent that even mainstream newspapers are starting to publish articles on the subject. I can imagine the 1980s being different, and clearly Kay had not made his mind up himself.
Big parts of the trilogy deal with people’s lives being governed by forces out of their control, and people being destined to do this ore that. The title of the trilogy refers to the Weaver at the Loom, the central metaphor used to describe a creator god that determines almost everything. However, this creator has deliberately inserted a random factor in his tapestry: the Wild Hunt. Without wanting to go into detail, I do not see how a merciless killing mechanism that would kill each and all if unchecked, would grant people the freedom to choose – especially not considering the fact that this Wild Hunt is generally dormant for millennia. Randomness doesn’t get you to freedom. Kay’s metaphysics don’t add up. Now that I think of it, it is the second big weakness in this book’s plot.
But the Wild Hunt is not what I wanted to write about, I was talking about the importance of Darien’s choice between light and darkness. His choice is embedded in a world full of cycles, prophecies and destinies – the randomness the Wild Hunt provides notwithstanding. As in the previous volumes, this book is full of quotes suggesting Kay acknowledges a fully free choice is simply impossible.
There were no surprises here, only terror and renunciation, helpless in the face of this vast inevitability.
“(…) You have it all wrong. I am not here to choose but to be chosen!”
“(…) As to why: I am not certain. An instinct, a premonition. (…)”
In her own way, Dave saw, in a flash of illumination, the goddess too was trapped by her nature (…)
Yet it is numerously repeated that Darien (and a few other characters) have to make a choice, and can make a choice. This may well be, as everybody makes choices all the time. That is not the issue. Making a choice is not the same as making a free choice. Having a will is not the same as having a free will.
So, what is of interest to me is the nature of Darien’s choice: how does it come about? Is it truly a free choice, as Kay lets his characters claim Darien’s choice should be? A choice that is not “bound”? Let’s look at the crucial passage, where the choice happens…
(minor spoiler in the next quote)
And on the ridge stood his mother. Darien felt, suddenly, as if he could not breathe. He looked upon her, from so impossibly far away, and he read the sorrow in her eyes, the awareness of doom descending. And he realized, a white fire igniting in his heart, that he did not want her to die. He did not want any of them to die: (…). He was sharing their grief, he realized; it was his own pain, it was fire running through him.
What does this learn us? That Darien’s choice is not a free choice either, but something that happens to him. His emotions happen to him, and he doesn’t control those. He doesn’t will anything: he only realizes his emotions, the things his body feels, and acts upon those. Darien is not free: he is a slave to his surroundings, and a slave to his body. These things are not random whatsoever.
It is a surprising anticlimax, given the fact that Guy Gavriel Kay so explicitly builds up the entire book to this choice, spends numerous paragraphs on the nature of destiny and choice, makes it even the main theme, as the choice to be made at the end of the darkest road. I ask myself wether Kay realized that this choice he wrote wasn’t a choice at all, but an automatic act of instinct too…
All this illustrates what a powerful illusion free will actually is: even a thoughtful, master writer as Kay can’t seem to dispel it.