Five Toronto college students are pulled into an alternate world where they discover their true destinies at the outset of a war that could affect all worlds, including their own.
Yep, another hard-to-synopsize epic fantasy book. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay employs one of the standard fantasy templates–ordinary people drawn into an extraordinary world–making the book “execution dependent.” That means that Kay has to work twice as hard to make the story feel fresh and exciting.
I felt that he largely succeeded in this regard. The mythology of Fionavar feels rich and vital, and he’s not afraid to put his ordinary people into real physical danger. He avoids one of the major pitfalls of the subgenre, which is the notion of destiny. I’ve read many books where the protagonist discovers his true destiny in the special world, only to have the plot play out like it’s Predestination: The Video Game. His path has always been waiting for him, and as a result there’s never any reason to fear that he won’t fulfill his destiny.
In The Summer Tree, the notion of destiny is fungible and uncertain. Kim, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave all have a part to play in the events that are unfolding in Fionavar, but Kay also empowers them to exercise free will. That tension insures a dynamism in the story that leads to genuine suspense.
On the negative side, I didn’t really engage emotionally with the characters. It’s quite possible that the names hindered me–they are so generic as to make it difficult to tell them apart at the outset. Making matters worse is that one of the Fionavar characters is named Matt. I kept confusing him with Dave. It’s like a flashback to my fourth grade classroom up in here.
Additionally, there wasn’t much to distinguish our five from one another in terms of temperament, with the exception of Paul. The other four are generally good, solid, dependable people who are supportive friends and avoid conflict. Kay doesn’t give them any real quirks or depth, nor does he do enough to differentiate the individual relationships from the group dynamic.
In other words, I was a little bored by our five. However, I am sufficiently interested in the story that Kay is telling to move on to the next installment immediately. See you on the other side.