fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsepic fantasy book review Guy Gavriel Kay The Fionavar Tapestry 1. The Summer TreeThe 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.

~Kat Hooper

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsThe Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay epic fantasy book reviewsAfter 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.

~Katie Burton

Published in 1984. The Summer Tree is the first novel of Guy Gavriel Kay’s critically acclaimed fantasy trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry. Five university students embark on a journey of self-discovery when they enter a realm of wizards and warriors, gods and mythical creatures–and good and evil…It all began with a lecture that introduced five university students to a man who would change their lives, a wizard who would take them from Earth to the heart of the first of all worlds–Fionavar. And take them Loren Silvercloak did, for his need–the need of Fionavar and all the worlds–was great indeed. And in a marvelous land of men and dwarves, of wizards and gods, five young people discovered who they were truly meant to be. For they are a long-awaited part of the pattern known as the Fionavar Tapestry, and only if they accepted their destiny would the armies of the Light stand any chance of surviving the wrath the Unraveller and his minions of darkness intend to unleash upon the world…

The Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest RoadThe Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest RoadThe Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road


  • Kat Hooper

    KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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  • Katie Burton

    KATIE BURTON (on FanLit's staff September 2015 -- September 2018) was a solicitor in London before becoming a journalist. She was lucky enough to be showered with books as a child and from the moment she had The Hobbit read to her as a bedtime story was hooked on all things other-worldy. Katie believes that characters are always best when they are believable and complex (even when they aren't human) and is a sucker for a tortured soul or a loveable rogue. She loves all things magical and the more fairies, goblins and mystical creatures the better. Her personal blog is Nothing if Not a Hypocrite.

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