My partner read this one before me and described it as ‘grown-up Narnia set in Middle Earth’ and to some extent I agree.
Five young friends from university meet a mysterious figure from another world who invites them to travel back with him, purportedly for a week’s festival. When they arrive in Fionavar, First of all Worlds, they find they are desperately needed. Fionavar is locked in a devastating drought… and etc. etc. etc.
There are many stock standard fantasy motifs in this story. There are kings, wizards and dwarfs, wolves, lios alfar (read ELVES), and plains-dwelling folk riding horses. There is a terrible evil about to be unleashed, and ancient destinies, Light against Darkness, and all of the sorts of things that you might expect.
First published in 1984, The Summer Tree is the first book in the Fionavar Tapestry, a fantasy series by Canadian Guy Gavriel Kay.
The Summer Tree unashamedly walks much of the ground laid out by Tolkien in Lord of the Rings. Kay worked with Christopher Tolkien to edit the Silmarillion before it was published, and it is clear that he absorbed Tolkien’s world of Middle Earth deeply. However, The Summer Tree also manages to be something very different and very much its own.
Kay writes beautifully. This isn’t just something incidental to mention, but is much of what shapes the story and gives it power. His prose has rhythm and texture that seeps into you as you read and carries you along through the weaving of the story. And weaving is an apt metaphor for what Kay does, as he follows each of the five main characters, and includes many more point of view characters besides, to allow the pattern of the story to be revealed. Despite the complexity of the threads, I rarely found the move from one viewpoint to another disconcerting. Kay seems to capture voice and perspective effortlessly.
His writing is also drenched with emotion. (If you don’t like that sort of thing, then this book is probably not for you). The intertwining of love and pain, the grief of loss, the joy of reunion, the ache of longing, all seep through the pages. He somehow hits high emotional notes again and again without me ever feeling that I was being manipulated or becoming worn down by it. There is just so much genuine feeling in this book, at times I found it overwhelming.
Unlike in Middle Earth, the Gods themselves play important and active roles in Fionavar, and in the story of The Summer Tree. I love how completely Kay embraced this aspect of his world. The Gods are not distant or abstract, but literal and real, walking among men and women and shifting their destinies.
There were only a few things that jolted me out of the experience of reading the Summer Tree.
One was how easily the five main characters from ‘our’ world seemed to assimilate to their places in this new world. They were otherwise relatively believable characters, whose actions and reactions generally made some degree of sense, and yet they found themselves flung into another world with Gods and Goddesses, Priestesses and Kings, evil beasts and wondrous beings, and they did not go stark raving mad. I guess there wasn’t really time for them to have nervous breakdowns, and it wouldn’t have suited the mood of the book, but it’s an inherent problem in these stories of people being magically shifted from one world to another, very different one. Surely the psychological strain of such an experience would be immense? (And how is it, I found myself wondering, they can suddenly ride horses and swing swords and do things that would presumably require many years of practise and tuition? How is it that they’re not all just a bit more useless?)
There were also moments in the book that seemed so closely derived from Tolkien that they actually startled me. I think this bothered me more because in many ways Kay has created a very different world with different problems, and yet he hasn’t quite made the leap required for it to not still feel just like Middle Earth but with different names for things.
These are minor quibbles in the scheme of things.
I found this book glorious. If you love fantasy and haven’t read it, you should track it down.