The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (The Fionavar Tapestry: Book 1)

I've had several recommendations of Kay's work over the years from various people, usually very much of the sort of thing said in these reviews, "It's good solid fantasy" etc, so while I certainly wasn't against reading it, it wasn't exactly far up on my list either.

My lady however recently read through the trilogy, and not just the fact that she's been most vociferous in recommending them to me, but also her extremely strong reactions while reading, indicated that this was probably a series I'd enjoy.
If you ask me what I love most in fantasy (and to a lesser extent science fiction), it's seeing very normal, three dimensional characters in fantastical situations, faced with utter darkness and confusion and required to cope. People who do not have superpowers or endlessly virtuous natures but are just fairly human human beings. Kay and I are obviously on the same wavelength here, since this is exactly what Kay gives us in The Summer Tree, the story of five graduate students who attend a conference and find themselves invited to the world of Fionavar to attend the fiftieth year celebration of a king's reign.

Kevin, Paul, Kim, Jennifer and Dave are all extremely believable characters, indeed Kay is careful even before we get into the fantasy world to make certain that we know something of the background of each of them and where they come from.

One thing which was fascinating in terms of Kay's characters, and indeed many of his depictions of the world of Fionavar as a whole, is his complexity. I found all my initial assessments of the characters, the morose one, the grumpy one, the bubbly girl, quite inadequate, just as they would be were I meeting these people in reality, indeed as a postgraduate student myself I found empathizing with the characters all the easier.
This complexity in character means that as the five change and grow through what they go through in Fionavar, I could never exactly predict how they'd react to certain situations or where the plot would take them. There is no "and he was an awesome sportsman in our world so became a mighty hero" type of straightforward correspondence in where the five end up.

This unpredictability also extended to much of the world of Fionavar, since while some cultures may be initially similar to what any reader of epic fantasy might have seen before, often they had an edge, a deal of nuance that you wouldn't expect. For example, when in the second part of the novel we are introduced to a tribal hunting culture reminiscent of American Indians, I instantly expected something brutal and ritualistic, and was endlessly surprised to find that was not the case, rituals yes, but ones undertaken by very definite human people not just big chief animal name and his manly warriors.

Whether the standard long bearded mage, the interplay of gods and goddesses, or even the arising of dark powers, Kay gives each a little extra flare which made them a fresh and unique experience, indeed I found myself quickly having to leave my preconceptions aside since they were less than adequate.

Kay's writing style also has to be praised for its poetry, rhythm and realism. While Kay is a deeply colourful writer, for the most part he manages to never sacrifice character for poetry, or portray his world just in the hollow tones of an epic saga. There is often something wonderfully immediate in Kay's prose, whether describing a city under drought, a battle against dark creatures, a humorous tavern brawl, or most horribly yet most vividly, torture and it's survival.

Despite this poetry however, Kay's style is rarely if ever ponderous, indeed I was amazed to find I'd finished all fifteen hours of The Summer Tree in almost exactly two days, the pace of the novel is so exquisitely counted to be readable and absorbing, indeed Kay is a perfect argument for the fact that you don't need to completely abandon descriptions or poetry in order to keep the plot moving at a good pace.
Of course, The Summer Tree is Kay's first novel, and there are one or two rough edges here and there. One of these I noticed was that sometimes bits of description or loose ends are dropped, for example in a major action sequence you only find out the fate of one secondary character much later, despite the fact that she was making an impact on the story up to that point. Kay also has a habit of frequently getting a little too epic in his writing, mentioning aspects of the world or history to the reader in the narration that are as yet not known about, or in one case simply letting us know one of the five students has been told a legend without actually having it written, while this does not drag, at the same time it can appear a little sloppy. I also noticed a little inconsistency in the way some of the five spoke, in that sometimes their language would match the slightly archaic style of the residents of Fionavar, sometimes be more like modern English, this I could've understood if it were gradual or something they picked up over time, but it didn't seem to bear any particular kind of pattern, indeed while there is some reason that one of the students due to what they undergo would speak as the residents of Fionavar do, with the others it is a little less certain.
My only other minor issue is to do with gender. While both of Kay's female characters are (like his male ones), extremely well fleshed out and three dimensional, one of them does have less of a purpose in the book and even served to actually faint while kidnapped. Fortunately, Kay is far too clever a writer to indulge in damselism for its own sake, and she had her own, decidedly grim part to play (one which will have massive impact in the next two volumes). One fact I did not like was the way that all three male characters were presented in Fionavar with a stream of beautiful ladies to take off to bed. While one character we learn is something of a lady's man, and another reacts rather differently to the invitations due to his own history, I was quite disappointed when the third male lead basically seemed to take the opportunity for a quick fling, and a fling which apparently meant very little to him. In a series as nuanced and carefully plotted as Kay's this element seemed slightly adolescent and actually unworthy of him, especially because things were not the same for the two female characters, (who have rather more normal and far slower romantic leanings if any), indeed Kay even implies that one court lady is less than pleasant due to her propensity for assignations, (perhaps a little gender bias on Kay's part).

What didn't help with this plot was also the fact that Kay was so casual about it, almost off hand (indeed one of his main characters spends his first night in Fionavar in a lady's company, and yet we only find out as much in passing).

This isn't to say that everyone in literature should be monogamous, only that compared to how Kay treats other relationships in the book, his ideas about meaningless one night stands, and his implication that these are a matter of course for any male member of the cast feel more than a little off, indeed I wonder what people's reaction would be if Kim and Jennifer indulged in the same level of distractions as their male counterparts.
In fairness this did bother my lady rather less than it bothered me.
All that being said, The Summer Tree was a superlative work of fantasy. While several of the elements and influences were familiar, Kay for example like Alan Garner borrows the names of the light and dark elves from Nordic myth, yet Kay gives each a spin, a delicacy and a style all its own, for example while Tolkien and many writers since have featured foul flying creatures as part of the Dark Lord's army, only Guy Gavriel Kay presents us with a black feathered, putrescent smelling, razor toothed swan.
The book doesn't exactly end, but is one of those first volumes that simply finishes with a presage of darkness, indeed the first thing I did when I finished The Summer Tree was reach for The Wandering Fire and get started straight away.
All in all The Summer Tree was nothing short of amazing, and a book I wouldn't hesitate in recommending to any fantasy fans who love language, character, and seeing the familiar tropes of epic fantasy take flower in new and astounding ways.
Dark, 9.6/10

The Summer Tree is the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay's trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry. Five men and women find themselves flung into a magical land called Fionavar, First of All Worlds. They have been summoned by the mage Loren Silvercloak and his source, former King of the Dwarves, Matt Soren.

Kim, Paul, Kevin, Jennifer and Dave must all play their parts in the upcoming battle with the fallen god Rakoth Maugrim. Kim Ford is recognised by an ancient seer to be the successor that was prophetically dreamt. Kevin and Paul join the band of the High King's son, Prince Diarmud. Dave, who gets seperated when crossing, ends up in the far north, amongst the Dalrei, The Riders of the Plain. Jennifer's road is definately the saddest and most difficult.

Guy Gavriel Kay takes characters from our world and places them in a fantasy world. This in reminiscent of C.S. Lewis' Narnia novels and Stephen Donalson's Chronicles of Thomas Covenant.

Then the cold of the crossing and the darkness of the space between worlds came down and Kevin saw nothing more. In his mind, though, whether for an instant or an age, he thought he heard the sound of mocking laughter. There was a taste in his mouth, like ashes of grief. Dave, he thought, oh, Martyniuk, what have you done?
The Summer Tree: Chapter 3

This is an enjoyable book that promises greater things to come. Being the first novels by Guy Gavriel Kay, you get the feeling that he cut is teeth on this trilogy and that his writing improved as he went along. The 5 main characters are all interesting and well introduced. This helps the reader become quickly involved with the storyline and care about what happens to the main protagonists. There are shades of Tolkien in every chapter of the book but the way in which Kay merges the real and fantasy worlds is a nice departure from most fantasy novels.

A good start to a trilogy that definately leaves the reader interested in what will happen in the next two books. A good, solid read.
Floresiensis, 8/10

9/10 A good, solid start to a fantasy trilogy.

Reviews by and Floresiensis

2 positive reader review(s) for The Summer Tree

1 positive reader review(s) in total for the The Fionavar Tapestry series

The Summer Tree reader reviews

from Nederland

This trilogy is my favourite fantasy novel. I read it more then 10 times the past 20 years. I was surprised to read the other reviews about not caring about the 5 people. Unbelievable to me.
10/10 ()

from Derby

It's OK but the kids in it didn't work for me. I really didn't care much about what happened to them. Guy Gavriel Kay has done much, much better than this - check out Tigana, The Sarantium Mosaic, Song for Arbonne and The Lions of Al-Rassan - they are the best.
7/10 ()

8.6/10 from 3 reviews

All Guy Gavriel Kay Reviews