This Week, I Read… (2017 #2)



#3 – The Summer Tree, by Guy Gavriel Kay

#4 – The Wandering Fire, by Guy Gavriel Kay

I’m doing something a little different this week, by reviewing these two books together, as they are the first two in a trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry. Ideally, I would have finished the final book as well, but at the time of posting I am only half done–I’ve had a busy week.

As familiar as I am with Kay’s later work, it’s a treat to go back to the beginning. Even his high-fantasy epics have deeply historical roots, the same as the works I’m familiar with; and though the style of Fionavar leans heavily on the fantasy conventions embodied in and solidified by J.R.R. Tolkien, it has never felt, to me, obviously derivative.

Because every recommendation I have seen for the Fionavar books has been framed by its relationship to The Lord of the Rings, works I am intimately familiar with, I have found myself reading the books and examining them through that lens, which is both unfair–they can and should stand on their own merits–and deeply interesting, to see where a different author can take the familiar concepts of elves and dwarves and a massive, formidable force of pure unadulterated evil.

Thus, my discussion of the works will be framed the same way.

The major difference I see is in the way Kay presents his heroes, and what being a hero entails, which is closely bound up in sacrifice. Some characters sacrifice themselves, literally, unto death (with varying degrees of success, which is interesting) while others sacrifice other things, their hopes for a normal future or their sense of real-world identity outside of the struggles of the alternate world they’ve been drawn into.

While Frodo’s sacrifices in his role as the Ringbearer are indisputable–Sam is the one who survives the journey with his base personality and future largely intact, while Frodo eventually goes into the West because the Shire holds no peace for him–Frodo is still a hobbit, a nonhuman, fairy-tale creature that may well be intended to represent a more modern humanity than the actual Men in LotR, he is pointedly not a Man, and definitely not from our world.

Kay’s five transplanted heroes are university students from Toronto. I’m not Canadian, sure, and I wasn’t even born in the ’70s, but I can relate to their struggles on a much more personal level than I can the collective tribulations of the hobbits of Middle-Earth.

And that makes their intensely personal sacrifices all the more tragic and affecting. Yes, the story is wrapped in myth and legend–I was not expecting the Arthurian twist, but perhaps, given the strongly Celtic influences, I should have been–but Fionavar feels, for lack of a better encompassing word, plausible, whereas LotR feels distant, ancient, as dusty as the tomes in Minas Tirith that Gandalf searches for clues. If I were suddenly to find myself transported to an alternate world where a war against a prime Evil were about to be waged, I would be as stumbling and clueless as Kay’s heroes were at first, good-hearted and curious but also hopelessly out of my depth.

Which, again, makes their individual sacrifices all the more affecting, because we the reader come to see each hero absorbed into Fionavar, making themselves a niche or struggling with their lack of one, learning to care about the world and its people and making decisions about their own futures based on the relationships they forge there.

At this moment, I’m halfway through the final book, and I’m eager to know how it ends, what resolutions these characters have. I want to know if Jennifer is doomed to repeat the cycle of betrayal and tragedy she finds herself drawn into. I want to know if Paul ever manages to break free of his past and how he moves forward from the power Fionavar granted him for turning his grief into something meaningful for others. I want to know if Dave has found a home among the Dalrei, if Kim ever reconciles her gift of Sight with whatever future she wanted to have before her life took a sharp and dangerous turn.

I want to know if Darien ever finds peace, love, or even acceptance. That poor child…

I’ll be back next week with how this wraps up and how badly the feels have kicked me square in the ribs.

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