CBRIII Maneuver #18 – The Summer Tree
Profile: Fantasy, “High Fantasy”
Summary: From the back of the book, 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 wizard and warriors, gods and mythical creatures – and good and evil.
After Action Report:
If you Google “Fionavar” and visit the first couple of results, you will quickly see a pattern. Every single website directly compares Kay’s trilogy to the works of Tolkien. Some are very direct about it, such as the Wikipedia entry that notes the similarities in world construction; geography and cosmology in particular. Kay’s own website remarks that Fionavar is deliberately styled after Tolkien’s High Fantasy concept. Most, if not all, of the professional reviews reference Tolkien and most of them are complementary. It is, in fact, impossible to experience this novel in cyberspace and not be exposed to a large sized container of your choice of Middle Earth.
It is tempting to say that Kay has updated the Lord of the Rings trilogy and done a rather good job of it. It is tempting to say that Kay was the correct choice to do this because of his experience editing The Silmarillion. But ultimately, The Summer Tree falls somewhat short of these lofty expectations and while this review will have ZERO impact on the enormous body of comparison that already exists; I cannot just rubberstamp A J.R.R. Seal of Approval and call it a day.
There is nothing fundamentally wrong with The Summer Tree. It is an interesting read with decent world construction and some interesting side characters. The protagonists are fair to moderately dull and, as High Fantasy protagonists, always end up where they need to be without much thinking. The amount of not-thinking that goes into the setup of this book is staggering. A ‘wizard’ snags you and four of your friends and offers to take you to a magical kingdom for a weekend holiday and your response isn’t “WTF mate?” There’s some serious suspension of disbelief, and that’s from the characters. The reader has to dig through another layer of the stuff.
Paul Schafer, who is the Angsty Prince of the story isn’t thinking about staying alive because his girlfriend died. Kim Ford gets a dose of destiny once she gets to Fionavar and stops thinking entirely. Kevin Laine, resident Prettyboy and natural-born leader doesn’t think until his friends start dying off. Jennifer Lowell in the role of Queen Bitch unthinkingly wanders from one terrible situation into another and then literally stops thinking after she gets raped by a god (rape isn’t funny kids. Stupidity is). And Dave Martyniuk, who went into this mess as the only one who was even slightly rational, kills a big, bad beastie and promptly stops thinking due to testosterone.
It’s really too bad that the Big Five are so incredibly moronic, because Loren Silvercloak, the mage who brings them across, is a charming and intelligent wizard type who enjoys a somewhat homoerotic relationship with a stubby Dwarf called Matt. Prince Diarmuid is a great example of why second sons in royal lines are more fun and is probably the smartest person in the book.
Like other fantasy novels, it’s hard to judge The Summer Tree by itself. It is part of a trilogy and if you were to draw some comparisons between The Lord of the Rings and The Fionavar Tapestry, you’d find that The Summer Tree barely gets to the foundation of the Fellowship, as everyone is still preparing for the coming war. There is a lot of material left to cover here and the later books may make up for some of the early stupidity. If we can’t believe in character development, what can we believe in?
Fans of Tolkien may enjoy The Summer Tree if only out of nostalgia. But for my money, I’d rather just read the original again than put up with this less than impressive imitation.