The Summer Tree

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.

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14 Responses to The Summer Tree

  1. Jenny says:

    I was just commenting over on Clare’s review that this is the book that put me off Guy Gavriel Kay! I knew I had a vague feeling of unhappiness about him, and I knew I had once read this fantasy book about these college students going to a faraway land that began with F, but I forgot the two were connected. I may or may not try it again, but at least it’s good to know that others of Kay’s books are better.

  2. I also had issues with the Summer Tree. The constant jumping between characters didn’t really allow for you to slide into this world and while there are a lot of really good ideas it just feels very must at times like they are all competing for your attention rather than working together to form a cohesive whole. The lack of adequate resolution (yes I know it is part of a trilogy but some kind of resolution would have been nice) didn’t help. I did try to read the second book but I’d left too much space between reading the first and very little of it was making sense. I could have gone back and read the first book but I didn’t want to.
    Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this book.

    • Teresa says:

      Cassandra, “A lot of really good ideas competing for your attention” is an apt description. If I’m going to read the other books, I suppose I should do it soon so I don’t forget what I do understand, but at this point, I’m leaning toward skipping them altogether.

  3. Frances says:

    Glad I read this as I have considered this a few times. As you say, you expect to have to work into a trilogy as the world and mores are defined but this sounded like more work than necessary. Maybe I will just postpone until I see if you ever pick up and like the second?

    • Teresa says:

      Frances, Unless someone convinces me the series improves, I doubt I’ll read the rest. I hear his later work is better, and my experience with Tigana bears that out.

  4. Nymeth says:

    I have yet to read any Kay, but now I’m glad I have Tigana on my tbr pile rather than this.

  5. Teresa says:

    Oh Ana, you were one of the people I was hoping could tell me if the series improves. Rats!

    But yes, Tigana, not this. I may give Ysabel a try at some point as well.

  6. I think because I read fantasy so much that I could fill in whatever I didn’t know with standard fantasy and not be too surprised by what it actually was. I’m sorry you didn’t enjoy this as much as I did, but at least you like his later stuff!

    • Teresa says:

      Clare, I used to read a fair bit of fantasy, and I think you’re right that when you’re immersed in it, it’s easier to follow new stories in the genre. And I do think some of the competing storyline problem is a first-novel problem.

  7. Study Window says:

    It’s a very long time since I read these books and I suppose that it’s interesting that I haven’t felt drawn to go back and re-read them as is often the way for me where fantasy is concerned. However, as best as my memory serves me, they do get better and I did go on and read them all. Why not take a break and then try the second one? You can always put it downif you feel it’s going nowhere.

    • Teresa says:

      Ann, I did look up some other reviews online, and it does seem to be a common opinion that although this series improves a but, Kay’s later books are generally stronger than this series as a whole. So I think maybe I’ll explore his later works and then come back to this trilogy if I want more. I can always then skim The Summer Tree.

  8. brands says:

    Although it has been a while since I read the trilogy, and I admit I remember it did drag at times throughout all three books, I will say that overall I feel that it was well worth the time invested in it.
    I just want to comment on the 5 seperate and disconnected storylines. As the story progresses they do all begin to come back together and the story has a whole makes more sense to the reader. So I say keep reading and judge the trilogy as a whole.

    • Teresa says:

      brands, Thanks for the input! The separate threads were coming together at the end of this book, and I’m glad to hear that the move toward coherence continues. I have pulled the next book off my shelf and am keeping it in front of me to see if the whim to read on hits. So far, I can’t bring myself to move forward, but I’ll give it a week or two to see if my curiosity wins out over my frustration.

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