Starting with a reiteration:
Full disclosure here, which may also be on the original 10-page update:
I purchased the Kindle edition of this book at full retail price. I follow the author on Twitter, but he does not follow me. We have had a few brief exchanges, but not many. I was introduced to this writer via the now-defunct Rave Reviews magazine back in 1987 or so, when I was given the third volume of this trilogy, The Darkest Road, to review. I fudged it, because I never did read the book. I felt it was unfair to read the third and final volume without having read the first two. And our schedule with Rave Reviews didn't provide enough time for me to find them. So I fudged. I have not revealed that information to the author on Twitter, nor do I have any intention of doing so.
And of course, I am an author of historical romances, contemporary gothic romances, and assorted non-fiction.
I finished reading The Summer Tree last night in bed on the Kindle, so there was no question about writing a full review on its tiny keyboard. Besides, I needed to think about how I was going to frame it.
To say I was disappointed is the least of it. I was shockingly disappointed, and in more ways than one.
But the biggest disappointment, I finally decided, came from the constant feeling of being outside the story.
There's a reason why movie theaters are dark: The objective is to have you, the viewer, shut out all external influences and ultimately be in the movie. The sound is loud so you can't talk to anyone else over it. The screen is huge so the sights fill your entire vision. The aisles are narrow so you are less inclined to bother your neighbors in the audience to get up for another tub of popcorn.
Good writers, and especially good writers of fantasy, know how to create this same sense with nothing more than words on a page. They don't have surround-sound and Cinerama projection and Smell-o-vision. They just have words on paper or electronic page. (If they're lucky, they have a dramatic narrator to read the audio version, but that's only after the words have been written.)
Guy Gavriel Kay never once achieved that level of atmospheric immersion. At least not for me.
The premise is simple: Loren Silvercloak, the mage from the magical world of Fionavar, comes to Toronto and selects five university students to take with him to Fionavar for . . . well, I'm not sure what for. Something about the celebration for the 50th anniversary of King Ailell's coronation or some such.
And they go.
But they'll be back within hours, Toronto time, Loren promises.
I think the guys, Kevin, Dave, and Paul, made some sort of farewell visit to their fathers. Were mothers involved? I don't remember. None of the visits were particularly memorable. None of the characters were particularly deep.
The girls, Kimberly and Jennifer, were on their own, I think.
At the time of their transportation to Fionavar, I had no clue what any of the five looked like. I got the impression that Loren looked like Gandalf and he had a companion who was a Dwarf, but beyond that I had no impression of any of the characters at all. Not what they looked like, not what their relationships were, none of their histories, NOTHING.
So they get to Fionavar and there are more and more and more and more people dragged onto the stage, and they are just as poorly portrayed as the five Torontans. (Is that a word?) Ailell the King, Diarmuid his son and heir, some guards and courtiers.
I felt as if Kay were trying to write Lord of the Rings in a modern Earth setting but with magic and another world. But he did it badly.
Tolkien started with Bilbo and Frodo, so the reader got to know them and know them well before other main characters were brought onto the scene. We learned about the Shire, about the houses that were holes in the ground and the peacefulness. There were petty squabbles and jealousies, there were good Hobbits and spiteful Hobbits. We learned about them as individuals, and Bilbo and Frodo as being somehow set apart.
Then we meet Gandalf. And later we meet Merry and Pippin. We meet them and know them because we already know what Hobbits are and how they're different from ordinary humans.
But we also know that there is more to this whole birthday party thing than just cake and ice cream. There is The Ring.
The ring makes clear several important facts about the world of Middle Earth. First and foremost is that magic works here. Second is that there are different languages. The runes on the inside of the ring might be Elvish, but the words are Black Speech.
Tolkien brings in his different races of semi-humans -- elves, half-elves, dwarves, etc. -- at the Council of Elrond. The objective of the quest is laid out and the reader knows that everything will ultimately focus on the Quest to Destroy The One Ring.
I've reached the end of The Summer Tree and I have no idea what the point of the story is.
The Five arrive in Fionavar for this celebration, or at least four of them do. For three fourths of the book the fifth student is just lost in space, and no one seems too worried about it. Even Loren, whose magic made them transition to his world, doesn't spare much thought for the missing. Or maybe he does, and that's why he goes off searching for him? I don't know for sure. Again, nothing seemed focused.
Kevin, one of the five, gets drunk right away, and I think he cavorts with some Fionavarian wenches. He becomes pals with Prince Diarmuid, who is drunk most of the time and is always after one wench or another.
The celebration festival happens right in the middle of a terrible drought that has fallen over the land of Brennin, where Ailell is High King. There doesn't seem to be much concern over what caused the drought or what should be done about it. It just is.
For one reason or another, Diarmuid and some of his crew, including Kevin and maybe Paul, another of the Torontans, head off to the kingdom of Cathal, which is on the other side of a river from Brennin. There's no way to cross the river, and apparently there's little to no communication between the two kingdoms, but I'm not sure about that. Diarmuid figures out a sneaky way to get across the river and into Cathal without alerting anyone, and then he seduces/rapes the king of Cathal's daughter. I'm not sure why. Because he can? Because he wants to? Because because?
More or less at the same time, Kimberly gets taken off by Ysanne, the Seer of Brennin, to her little cottage by the lake. I'm not sure why this happens either, because so many things are going on with no explanation or context. Ysanne conjures up some creature/spirit from the lake, and he makes Kim the new Seer and erases Ysanne. It's not like Ysanne dies. She's gone entirely. She doesn't even get any kind of afterlife or anything. So Kim is now the Seer, the lake spirit imparted all knowledge to her, and she has a couple of magic talismans. One is a ring, I think it's called the Baelrath (but not the Balrog), and then I think there's also a bracelet but maybe not. Oh, and then there's a dagger, too, that she uses to kill Ysanne. Maybe. I'm not sure about that either. Things happen very quickly in this book, so it's not as if anything has time to sink in. There's more text devoted to the lake spirit imparting all this knowledge than there is to why.
Now, we know that Diarmuid is the king's younger son, that there was an older son but he got exiled and His Name Must Not Be Spoken.
There's something to do with the Summer Tree, which is in some forbidden forest or something. The older prince offered to sacrifice himself on the Summer Tree in place of his father, but this was some kind of insult, so the older prince got banished. I think it has something to do with ending the drought but I'm not sure. That part wasn't made too clear.
There doesn't seem to be any drought in Cathal, where Diarmuid is boinking Sharra, the king's daughter. I don't know why Cathal is spared -- it's called the Garden Country, I think -- but it is.
For some reason or other, Paul Schaefer, one of the Canadians, volunteers to die on the Summer Tree in place of Ailell, in place of The Unnamed Prince, in place of Diarmuid. I'm not sure what he hopes to accomplish by doing this. Will it end the drought? Is that the whole point of it? Is that why they were brought to Fionavar by Loren?
So Paul gets "bound" to the Summer Tree, I think by Matt Soren, who is the Dwarf who gives Loren all his magic power. Loren is off somewhere else, and without his Dwarf as source for his magic, Loren is sort of helpless. Why would he do this? I don't know.
It was about at this point that I started feeling really icky about the whole book. I saw the Tree as a metaphor for the Christian cross, and Paul, with his saintly name, standing in as the heroic sacrifice. Especially since he has to be "bound" to the Tree for three days. I'm not sure what was supposed to happen at the end of those three days, but that's the way the story goes.
The whole religious aspect is very muddled. There's a Goddess, Dana, and there's a God, Mornir. I think that's right. They're sort of in competition with each other, but sort of not. And then there's a Weaver who's above all that. And there are lesser gods, too? I don't know. It's all very confusing.
Because there's also Rakoth Maugrim, the evil Sauron-like thing. He's also called Sathain, and he's been bound under a mountain for a thousand years (which really isn't very long at all) and there are five wardstones that will let everyone know if Rakoth is going to get out. So, are these wardstones like Silmaril or Palantir stones? Or like the Seals in Wheel of Time, which are like the Biblical seals?
So then all of a sudden, after all this has been going on for several days in Fionavar, the third of the male Canadians suddenly shows up. But he's in a different place from the others, apparently because he tried to break free when Loren was transporting them. He lands (literally) in a different place and is rescued (?) by some people who herd eltor. There's a whole lot of discussion about the sacredness of the eltor and so on, but no clue as to what they actually are.
When Dave, the last student, shows up, he admits to expecting the eltor were something like American bison. I never thought that, but it made sense, especially when one of the guys where he lands is described as
He never wore a shirt, or moccasins; only his eltor skin leggings, dyed black to be unseen at night.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry Book 1) (p. 245). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Moccasins? Really? In Fionavar?
I had thought maybe deer or cattle, or whatever, but in fact they're kind of like antelope. Eland? And then the Dalrei -- that's the name of the people who herd the eltor -- go on a bloody massacre of their sacred eland, er, eltor and Dave participates. Or, at least I think he does.
The problem here was that I didn't know if Dave came through the transporter magic at the same time as the others but just was in a different part of Fionavar, or if there had been some kind of time warp. Rakoth had already escaped from his mountain fortress of Starkadh before Dave showed up, but when Dave arrived, Rakoth hadn't escaped yet. It wasn't until much later in the text that a time frame is hinted at, and it's implied that Dave came through at the same time. So Rakoth Maugrim, aka Sathain, aka Sauron, gets to explode again.
And Paul completes his sacrifice and learns he wasn't responsible for the death (in Toronto) of the young woman he loved who was going to marry someone else. And it starts to rain. (One whole book of this book is titled "The Song of Rachel," even though Rachel isn't a character in the book; she's the one who died.)
In the meantime, something happens to Jennifer and she gets carried off by some bad guys and strapped to the back of an evil black swan who flies her to Starkadh where she's going to be raped and tortured by Rakoth and then killed.
While all this is going on, King Ailell dies. So Diarmuid should be the new king, but it turns out that Ysanne the Seer had a loyal servant with a limp who then becomes Kim's servant because she's the new Seer. But he doesn't really have a limp, and he's really the exiled older son of Ailell. His name is Aileron.
That's when I laughed out loud.
a movable airfoil at the trailing edge of an airplane wing that is used for imparting a rolling motion especially in banking for turns
So the king is dead, Prince Drink-and-Diddle is supposed to get crowned, but Prince Propeller shows up and claims the thrown. Er, throne. At the coronation, there's a scuffle, threats are made to kill one or the other or both of the princes, someone throws a dagger that lands in Diarmuid's shoulder instead of his heart, but only because the dagger thrower's aim is thrown off because someone threw the actual crown at her. Yes, her. The dagger thrower is none other than Sharra, daughter of the king of Cathal.
I'm not sure why she wanted to kill Diarmuid, other than because he loved her and left her? The sex stuff in this book isn't done very well.
So then at the tail end of the book, we learn that Rakoth escaped because Matt Soren -- remember, he's the Dwarf who gives all the power to Loren Silvercloak who started all this -- used to be the King of the Dwarves but he stepped down because some of the dwarves were doing bad magic things and he wasn't going to be part of that shit, but now the bad magic they did has led to allowing Rakoth to escape. It has something to do with a Cauldron.
Oh, yeah, and even though I haven't read any of The Chronicles of Prydain, the very mention of a cauldron would have set my eyes to rolling. You just can't have a serious background in high fantasy or children's literature of the later 20th century without having at least encountered Lloyd Alexander's The Black Cauldron by title and/or reputation. (I own it and one other of the five books of the series; maybe now I'll be motivated to get the other three and read them.) The books were published in the late 1960s, roughly the same time as LOTR was coming out in (authorized) paperback from Ballantine. And well before Kay was writing The Fionavar Tapestry.
So, where does this book end? Well, Kim the Seer has powers, so she's gathering everything she has and I think she just transported everyone back to Toronto, but I'm not sure.
But there was also a spar of light. A dying spar, so nearly gone, but it was there, and Kim reached with everything she had, with all she was, to the lost island of that light and she found Jennifer.
“Oh, love,” she said, inside and aloud. “Oh, love, I’m here. Come!”
The Baelrath was unleashed, it was so bright they had to close their eyes against the blazing of that wildest magic as Kimberly pulled them out, and out, all the way out, with Jennifer held to the circle only by her mind, the spar, pride, last dying light, and love.
Then as the shimmering grew in the Great Hall, and the humming before the crossing time, as they started to go, and the cold of the space between worlds entered the five of them, Kim drew one breath again and cried the last desperate warning, not knowing, oh not, if she was heard:
“Aileron, don’t attack! He’s waiting in Starkadh!”
And then it was cold, cold, and completely dark, as she took them through alone.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry Book 1) (pp. 382-383). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
(Italics in the original.)
I haven't decided yet if I want to read on. Curiosity about how they figure out what to do about Rakoth Maugrim Sauron Satan is a motive, because I think I have more curiosity about their story than they do. But this book was a monstrous frustration. I've read the whole thing and I still don't know what's really going on. Do I want to read two more books of this malarkey?
I don't know.
With a good editor, maybe it would have been better. I can't believe that any editor worth two nickels wouldn't recognize aileron as a real word in the 1980s. I think I learned it from Mickey Mouse Club when Darlene Gillespie was training to be an airline stewardess (sic) and had to learn about planes. That was in the 1950s, for crying out loud!
Using Celtic mythology as a base isn't necessarily bad, but Kay's is so clumsy. The god with horns is Cernan, which seems an obvious play on Cernunnos, the Horned God of the Celts. (Of course, it's also the last name of the last human to walk on the moon, Eugene Cernan.) There's also an animal called a cerne, which maybe is a deer? Or maybe its a priapic giant human?
Kay has a nasty habit of dropping things into the story without letting the reader know what they are. As I wrote in another status update, he did this with the eltor/antelope that the Dalrei people herd. What happens is that the reader -- unless she happens to be just mindlessly reading and not paying any attention at all -- feels as if she's missed something. She backs up, looking for missed clues. She's completely pulled out of the story, and when she discovers that she has not, in fact, missed anything, she feels cheated and less inclined to go back and pick up where she left off.
For instance, here's a passage from page 286:
With an effort, then, a very great effort, he stretched himself out, mind and soul, to the impossible creature that had come for him. It did not exist, this exquisite thing that stood gazing calmly back at him in the strangely hued night. It did not exist, but it would,
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry Book 1) (p. 286). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
So what is this "impossible creature"? An angel? A fairy? A dragon?
We don't learn until page 315 the answer to that question!
Then she was there and he was there before her, waiting, a welcome in those eyes, and a final acceptance of what she was, all of her, both edges of the gift. She felt his mind in hers like a caress, and nudged him back as if with her horn.
Kay, Guy Gavriel. The Summer Tree (Fionavar Tapestry Book 1) (p. 315). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
Ah, so she's a unicorn! And then she's a unicorn with wings!
Why couldn't we know that on page 286? What's the sense in teasing readers?
I think that's what pissed me off the most, even more than Prince Propeller. Author Kay treats me like a Reader, not like someone he really wants to join him and his characters on this quest. If I'm not welcome, why should I go?