“We salvage what we can, what truly matters to us, even at the gates of despair.”
Considering how much I adore the writings of Guy Gavriel Kay, it pains me to give his debut novel The Summer Tree a barely passing grade. It is hard to believe that this is the same author who penned such great novels like A Song for Arbonne, Tigana, and The Lions of Al-Rassan. Granted, a first novel rarely shows the author in top form; in most cases, they are still in the process of developing their craft, trying to figure out what they want to accomplish with their writing. This is the case here with The Summer Tree: Guy Gavriel Kay shows only glimpses of his superb talents that will become fully realized later on with his other novels. On the front cover of the Roc edition, Marion Zimmer Bradley praises The Summer Tree as "one of those books that changes your perception of the world forever afterward." This could not be a more hyperbolic and inaccurate statement--she was clearly paid a good deal of money to bestow such high praise upon a novel that is at best, a middling effort at high-fantasy and an innocuous homage to Tolkien. Luckily, the Fionavar Tapestry series was not my first exposure to Guy Gavriel Kay, otherwise it is unlikely that I would have picked up another one of his books.
While not a complete failure, the novel's main strength comes from Kay's exceptional world-building and detailed historical lore found in his imaginative universe of Fionavar. He shows early on of being able to create a vivid world with its unique mythology but it is the weak story and flat archetypal characters that really hurts this novel. As an epic narrative containing many interconnected story-lines and a huge cast of characters, Kay has difficulty balancing all of he different story elements and the end result is a bloated mess. If you are writing in the fantasy genre, the story has to be believable and make sense within its own governing logic. Unfortunately, Kay opts to either leave out key plot details or resorts to long-winded info-dumping where much of the story is a combination of dull and just plain baffling.
The basic premise is so poorly executed, which nearly ruined the entire story for me and other readers who are less forgiving are bound to be even more disconcerted: five students from the University of Toronto (glad to see my school and home town get some love) meet a wizard disguised as a guest speaker at a folklore conference who transports them to the magical realm of Fionavar. As outlandish and cliche as this scenario might be, I am willing to go along with it as long as there is a reasonable explanation. Sadly, Kay's set-up is half-baked and to make matters worse, when the five "chosen ones" get to this new world, there are no immediate protestations whatsoever. They all just shrug it off like it is no big deal to meet a wizard and his dwarf friend who can hurl them across the dimensions of time and space to a fantasy world where magic exists. Come on! At least show one of the characters in distress about their new circumstances, pleading to go home or questioning the Wizard's intentions for bringing them here in the first place. Nope. They just ease into their new roles without any sense of estrangement and soon find themselves entangled in a war against a "Dark Lord" that has awakened from a thousand year imprisonment underneath a mountain who is intent on destroying the land of Fionavar. It does not take long for the story to become silly and contrived with the familiar display of various genre tropes.
Despite these flaws, the story is entertaining enough if one is willing to disband all belief and accept Kay's premise. The Summer Tree is far from groundbreaking within the fantasy genre but one of its few redeeming qualities is Kay's elegant prose, which often contains a lyrical intensity and one gets the sense here that he is on the cusp of maturing into a great writer. The story boasts some interesting story-developments as well that best come through at the end but reaching these revelations is a real slog. It does seem as if Kay has a general idea of where the story is heading with the subsequent novels but whether or not he is capable of pulling it off by greatly improving on this novel remains to be determined. As a devoted fan of Guy Gavriel Kay, I will probably finish reading the series at some point but my expectations are extremely low.
On a side note: What's up with the some of the character names? One of the five friends who time-travels to Fionavar is named Paul Schafer. I kept picturing David Letterman's musical sidekick in the role. Oh, and the dwarf's name is Matt. Really? That is a human name, not a dwarf name. I thought you were well-read in the fantasy genre, Mr Kay! Even Rhioganedd Kinglyrock or Brannan Goldprospector would have been better.