The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book One)

Synopsis:
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.

Review:
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.

14 thoughts on “The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (The Fionavar Tapestry, Book One)”

  1. The Summer Tree was the first book I read by Kay. I had similar thoughts, but was interested enough to try his other books. Now he’s one of my favorites. Keep going!

  2. “employs one of the standard fantasy templates–ordinary people drawn into an extraordinary world”

    It might help to put this in perspective—When Kay wrote this series, that was not yet a standard trope. He was one of the first.

  3. There are pluses and minuses to being the first. :) It’s great because everyone who comes after is being a copycat, yeah? And bad because they have the opportunity to look at what you did critically and try to do it better, and later readers won’t necessarily know you were the first.

    I’d say Kay was THE first, but I’m not sure of that. I know I heard it at one point, but I’m only certain of the fact that he was one of the first.

  4. I’ve never been all that thrilled with The Summer Tree; I think it’s by far the weakest in the trilogy, and it’s my least favourite of all Kay’s books.

    The Wandering Fire is great, though, and I hope you enjoy it as much as I do! And either way, I’m eager to hear your thoughts about it.

  5. How cool that you’re reading these books now. I have the omnibus edition so my impression of each book kind of blends together, but I do believe it only gets better as you read further. The last book definitely packs a wallop. And you’ll probably notice a lot of Tolkien’s influence in some of the story lines (which can get a bit annoying, but not inhibitively so).

  6. I’ll have to disagree with Poodlerat, I found the second book the weakest in the trilogy. And the trilogy is the weakest writing of Kay’s that I’ve yet encountered. He frustrated me time and again in that trilogy with his multiple quirks (she said diffidently), and far too frequent parallels with LOTR. Yet, the man’s sheer genius still shone through even as he made me roll my eyes. I’ve read Last Light of the Sun – much better – and Ysabel – much, much, much better – and fully intend to work my way through all his books. I do think he’s a genius, although it was still pretty rough around the edges in the Fionavar Tapestry.

  7. My cousin sent me a box of all of Kay’s works, and then my other cousin (her sister) said that she liked Fionavar best, so that’s where I started. I’m intrigued by Last Light of the Sun, and people tell me that Tigana is great as well.

  8. I would rank “Ysabel” below “Fionavar” and “Last Light of the Sun”, but it’s not surprising that Fionavar has its weak points: I’m pretty sure they were Kay’s first published novels, or at least written at a very early point in his publishing career.

    “Tigana” is my absolute favourite. :)

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