I enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay’s two-volume Sarantine Mosaic, and I enjoyed his Ysabel, so I figured I’d have a fling at his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Ordered the books from Amazon. Started book 1, The Summer Tree.
Within a few pages, I had realized this must be his first novel. The first-novelness of it fairly leaps off the page. I also had a dim memory of having read the opening at some point in the distant past and having decided not to bother going further. This time, having bought the books, I’m forcing myself to slog through at least a couple of hundred pages.
The premise of the opening is that a wizard from the parallel world of Fionavar shows up in Toronto. He invites five college students to accompany him back to his home world, for reasons that he is rather vague about. And of course they accept the invitation. Not eagerly, but with only the barest of misgivings. And without packing suitcases.
When they arrive in Fionavar, they’re instantly plunged into a maelstrom of courtly intrigue. It’s a stock Medieval fantasy world, pretty much. Swords and longbows and a palace with a wastrel prince and an aged king who is surrounded by duplicitous counselors. Oh, and an ancient evil entity imprisoned by being buried under a mountain. You just know the evil entity is going to get loose before long, if he isn’t loose already. So that’s the story setup.
The first problem is that the two young women and three young men from our own world are not clearly differentiated from one another in the opening. Kimberly, Jennifer, Paul, Kevin, and Dave sort of share the spotlight. A better way to handle this type of situation narratively, rather than shuttling back and forth, is to use a single viewpoint character and share his or her views of the others.
The second problem is that the young people are singularly credulous. After one evening’s acquaintance, they hop into the magic circle with the wizard from Fionavar, and off they go. When they arrive at the palace, again they seem content to bumble along, asking few questions in spite of the deep tensions that are immediately apparent, and seeming almost unfazed by the fact that their entire lives have just been turned upside down. One of them has evidently suffered some emotional trauma (still unexplained after the first 75 pages) in the recent past, but emotional depth is not a prominent feature of the narrative.
It seems very possible that they were swept up into this seemingly impromptu expedition for reasons to do with Fate, or hidden magical facets of their personalities, or something of the sort. But really, that’s just the young author playing fast and loose. He wants to toss some modern people into a Medieval epic, so there they are, and because he wants them there and they’re his puppets, they’re not shocked or bewildered, they’re just having an adventure.
The fact that the natives of Fionavar speak English? None of the characters seems to have noticed how odd this is. The king also plays chess, and by the same rules that are used in Europe, which is really as profoundly weird as the linguistic coincidence, because chess was invented in India and underwent various developments over the course of a thousand years or so. It’s still played in somewhat different forms in Japan, China, Vietnam, and elsewhere — so how does the king in far Fionavar happen to be familiar with the European rules?
The third problem is the fantasy premise itself. Fionavar is replete with magic — strange beings, glowing crystals, jealous priestesses, magic bracelets, a Seer, a wolf who is there and then not there. But between that mishmash and the standard literary furniture of a Medieval epic, there’s not, as yet, much promise of originality or depth.
The fourth problem is what we might call the Celtic kitchen sink. Several pages are studded with foreign names, none of which are clearly explained to the reader. It’s as if Kay is expecting, or hoping, to dazzle the reader with epic breadth without bothering to nail anything down the way he ought to. Starting on page 1 (and omitting the names of onstage characters), we have Ginserat, Cathal, Eridu, Revor, Dalrei, Colan, Conary, Paras Derval, the lios affar, Ra-Termaine, Daniloth … and that’s all on page 1. Then Rakoth Maugrim, Seresh, the Summer Tree, the svart affar, and later on, in another saga-flavored info-dump, Rhoden, Saeren, Taerlindel, the River Glein, the Latham, Leinen, Gwen Ystrat, Dun Maura, Brennin, Mornir (with an umlaut over the o, if you please), Delevan, Cathal … is your head spinning? Mine is.
I’m not giving up quite yet. I’ll give him another hundred pages, but as Ricky Ricardo used to say to Lucy, Kay has some ‘splainin’ to do.