It all starts with a lecture at the Second International Celtic Conference at the University of Toronto at which the reclusive Lorenzo Marcus is making his first-ever public appearance. By the end of the evening, Marcus is revealed to be a powerful mage, and five students at the university have become embroiled in a world of politics, magic, and otherworldly creatures in a place called Fionavar.
This is the first book of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. I’d been wanting to read this series for years, but my library didn’t have it. I did read and enjoy Tigana, one of Kay’s later works, several years ago. So I was happy to finally get all three of the Fionavar books from Bookmooch. Unfortunately, I think this first book in the series suffered under my years of anticipation, and now I’m undecided about whether to spend my precious reading time on finishing the series.
One of the keys to a good fantasy novel, in my opinion, is the world-building. The best fantasy worlds have rich histories that go beyond the story on the page. And Kay’s Fionavar does have a wonderfully rich history. There are complex mythologies, multiple nations, different magical systems, and so on. The trouble is that the reader is not properly introduced to this world. We, like the five university students, are thrown in and expected to get our bearings immediately.
In theory, Kay’s use of modern-day characters is an ideal way to draw readers into his complex world. As the characters get acclimated, the reader gets to share in their confusion and learn along with them. The problem, however, with The Summer Tree, is that Kay’s five students learn the ropes in no time flat. There are some reasons given for a couple of the characters’ quick adjustments, but for the most part, it’s just hard to believe. And worse, it robs the reader of surrogates who ask the questions in the reader’s place.
So it took me a while to get accustomed to Kay’s world. And just as I started to understand the rules of this world, new elements would get introduced; this kept happening right up to the end of the book. Having five protagonists didn’t help matters. Once the five reached Fionavar, they quickly split up, so there were five storylines to follow and no single narrative thread to raise the stakes and the tension. The narrative rarely settles in one place for long, and I always felt a little behind.
I know it sounds like I really disliked this book, but it wasn’t a total loss. There are some beautifully done scenes, and I did come to care about some of the characters. However, those good scenes were too few, and the caring came too late for it to become a full-blown passion. The book does end on a note of suspense, with most of the main characters reunited and another coping with horrifying torment that the others must rescue her from. So there is reason to read on to the next book. I’m just not sure I care enough.
I have the other two books, but I’m torn about reading the rest. The Summer Tree was Kay’s first novel, and if my memory of Tigana is accurate, his skills as a storyteller do improve. But perhaps it takes longer than the remaining books in this series (and it’s possible that my tastes have changed in the 10 years since I read Tigana). For those who have read the trilogy, does it get more cohesive? Or is this book typical of the trilogy as a whole?
Other reviews: The Literary Omnivore.