The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay
I absolutely loved everything about Guy Gavriel Kay’s stand-alone novels Tigana and A Song for Arbonne, so it was with great excitement that I downloaded the newly released audio version of The Summer Tree, the first novel in his famous The Fionavar Tapestry.
In The Summer Tree we meet Loren Silvercloak, a wizard who has traveled from the world of Fionavar to Toronto to fetch five university students (three guys and two girls) who are needed to help fight an ancient evil force that has been bound under a mountain for centuries. It is awakening, has adversely affected the weather, and threatens the future of Fionavar. The students are transported to the capital city of Caer Paravel — no wait, wrong book — Paras Derval and each discovers that (s)he has an important role to play in this strange land’s upcoming upheaval.
If I had read The Summer Tree when it was first published in 1984, perhaps I would have enjoyed it more. Or at least I would have been more forgiving back then, but at this point in my life, with many years of reading fantasy epics behind me, I just had a hard time mustering up much enthusiasm for this story.
Besides the parallels to Tolkien and Lewis which you will have already noticed, we’ve got dwarves who live under mountains, elf-like creatures who live in the forests, names which require hyphens, apostrophes, or other funny symbols (Na-Brendel , Mörnir, Ra-Termaine, T’Varen), names of evil things which sound Russian (Rakoth, Starkadh, svart alfar, Rangat, Blöd, Khath Meigol, urgach), nasty creatures who are minions of the bad guy, a girl who finds out she’s the next seer, a hero who must sacrifice himself to save the blighted land…. etc. Much of it is derived from ancient myth and legend and it’s presented in Kay’s eloquent and slightly overwrought style. This will likely please those who are looking for that sort of weighty epic, but to me it just felt heavy. I have no doubt that this is caused by reading this too late in my fantasy vita — I was looking for something new — so if you’re not relating to me here, I encourage you to give The Summer Tree a try. Every fantasy fan should read Guy Gavriel Kay.
Kay’s use of the five modern-day characters is a bit perplexing. Their reactions to being brought to a parallel world with an ancient culture were unconvincing as they immediately adapt to the customs of Fionavar without much trepidation or wonder. They didn’t seem concerned about how or when they’d get back to their world, what their family and friends might be thinking, or what might happen if they (very likely) died in Fionavar. They never talk about modern conveniences like cars, guns, and telephones. They go along with the patriarchic culture and, though they are well-educated, they don’t use their modern knowledge to any advantage. Perhaps they will in the sequels, but there is so far no indication that they are thinking that way, which baffles me. I’m wondering why Kay used modern-day heroes at all.
As for the audio production, it’s produced by Penguin Audio and read by Simon Vance (one of my favorites) so it’s well told. However, Vance’s Canadian accent makes me cringe and, since our five heroes are all Canadian, that’s a lot of cringing.
I expected to love The Summer Tree, so I had purchased the second book in The Fionavar Tapestry, too, and I will probably read it at some point. But I greatly prefer Guy Gavriel Kay’s more recent fiction, which is really wonderful stuff.
After several false starts I finally made it through Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Summer Tree but, like Kat, I was disappointed, especially as I loved Tigana. The story did grow on me as it progressed. Near the end the focus shifts to the Dalrei, a race of riders who carry out a tribal, spiritual existence on the plains. This section spoke to me more than the rest of the book. The riders are forced to deal with complicated emotions as they balance love with questions of honor and in their story lies a sense that something important is at stake. It was as if Kay suddenly remembered that it’s important for the reader to care about the characters.
It seems I wasn’t alone in not caring for the characters as they aren’t remotely bothered about each other (or indeed themselves). As Kat said the attitudes of the five students who are transported to Fionavar is perplexing at best. There is no exploration into their thoughts on being magically transported to a new world and they adapt to it with ludicrous ease. Kevin, in particular, seems bizarrely happy to crack dirty jokes with the dandy prince as if it were simply another night out with the boys at home. I was never able to get past this major omission with the result that I couldn’t invest in the story or the characters. Not to mention the fact I was left with the same feeling I used to get on reading adventure stories as a child — namely that the boys were out having all the fun, (risking life and limb, kissing girls, etc.) while the ladies take everything very seriously and get themselves kidnapped.
The best thing about the book is Kay’s style and descriptive brilliance, but his sustained use of the passive voice leant an overly formal tone to the entire book. Kevin does not cross the river — THE RIVER IS CROSSED, BY KEVIN. I felt as if I should be taking the whole thing very seriously and reading it in a grand, Gandalf-esque voice (which on occasion I did).
Despite my thoughts on The Summer Tree I will certainly read more of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. His imaginative flourishes and knack for building intensity make him a wonderful writer. But unfortunately in this case not even Kay’s skill with a sentence could rescue the story from the shallowness of its characters.
4/5 Stars for me. Liked the next two books even more.
I did read the trilogy when it was first published and remember enjoying it. Thirty odd years on, I don’t remember a great deal about the events of the novels, but I do remember being entranced by Kay’s prose. It inspired me to go on reading his work as it came out.
So much has been published since, that I agree this early work suffers by comparison. I don’t think I will reread it now and have to second guess my early impressions.
I don’t know that I can rate it now. In 1984 I’d likely have given it 5 stars, today probably more like 3.
It may be difficult to understand out-of-context, but when this book came out it was a phenomenon. The fantasy genre was quite a different environment then. What succeeds today is very different: it is a different world, quite literally. That Kay has grown and changed along with the world-at-large and its expectations is a tribute to his skills.
Reading reviews and comments that imply there is somewhat of a divide in Kay’s works – early and recent – confirms for me the suspicion I have held that his subsequent books may not appeal to me as much as the first trilogy did. I have several of them in the house, I just have not put them at the top of my reading pile as yet. Other books keep getting in the way – which includes re-reading the Fionavar Tapestry.
I totally agree with you about this, Becky, and the same point has been made to me by fantasy author Janny Wurts. This is the hardest aspect, I think, of reviewing older SFF books. You want to be fair and consider the book in its own context, but you also want to alert the readers who are considering picking up the book TODAY how it will feel to the modern reader, so you have to consider the modern context, too. It is a hard balance sometimes.
Forgot to say, Becky, I think you will still love his more recent work. When you read it, please let us know.
I am arriving very (4 years) late to this but I agree with most of Cat’s comments. Not having heard the audio book with the Canadian accents, I feel a bit triggered by the negative remark concerning them. I am from GGK’s home city Winnipeg, so that might be why, eh. The characters in this novel are indeed hard to relate to, often infuriating. So is the lifted Tolkien and Lewis feel, especially in the names and creatures, also in the overly dire tone much of the time. Like, slow down on the betrayals, I need to care first about these people. Paul for one reminds me of a depressive friend of mine who seemingly refuses to move past a tragic event that happened. So… not as good as his later works which I really enjoy, yet I keep reading (half way through right now). Have a good one eh!
You made me laugh, Andrew. To be clear (and I now realize my review was not), it is not THE Canadian accent that makes me cringe, but Simon Vance’s PARTICULAR Canadian accent. He’s British and his Canadian accent is horrid. They should have chosen a Canadian to voice this book, eh?
(I would like to mention, though, that I LOVE Simon Vance. Just not when he does a Canadian accent.)