The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay
BOOK REVIEW: The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road) by Guy Gavriel Kay
ROC (a division of Penguin Books), 1984 and 1986, ISBN 978-0-451-45826-5 (The Wandering Fire), 978-0-451-45833-9 (The Darkest Road)
When I read Guy Gavriel Kay’s 2007 novel Yasabel, I was impressed enough to seek out another one of his works. When I read his 2005 work The Last Light of the Sun, I was completely blown away (see my review on this blog). It seemed a no brainer, then, to check out his trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry, especially when it came with glowing testimonials from such fantasy luminaries as Andre Norton, Charles de Lint and Marion Zimmer Bradley.
Unfortunately, The Fionavar Tapestry was a frustrating disappointment. Granted, these works preceded the other books by 20 years, and Kay was bound to have matured as a writer over the years. And granted, prior to publication of the Tapestry, Kay had assisted Christopher Tolkien in editing his father’s fantasy masterpiece, The Silmarillion, which was bound to have a strong influence on an impressionable young writer. Nevertheless, I found The Fionavar Trapestry to be uneven, derivative, and oh, so full of convenient magic.
Although epic in scope, the story line is pretty simplistic. Five young adults from modern day Toronto are conveyed to an alternate, medieval world, where they join in with The Good Guys to overcome the Really Big, Really Bad Guy. I don’t mean to sound flippant here, but to support this thin of a story line, there had better be some really, really good characters with some killer plot developments, written in a way that draws the reader in and immerses them in a world both magical and endearing. Unfortunately, The Fionavar Tapestry has none of these.
Now, before you think me unduly harsh, let me say that Kay does show an agile imagination and the world that he creates is expansive and coherent. But for me, each thing he did right was overshadowed by so much that was lacking. For instance, it was an interesting twist that his five main characters actually came from “our” world and were transported (with their consent) to the land of Fionavar, which we discover is an alternate to our world. But other than give us a touchpoint in what we would consider reality, he does nothing with this. His five characters – Kim, Jennifer, Paul, Dave and Kevin – grudgingly accept far too readily the situation that takes them from their world. I mean, if a person were to approach me at a scholarly conference and admit that he was an interloper with ulterior motives and that I and my friends were to be guests to witness a celebration in another iteration of the world, I think I would give it more than an “okaaaay” and go along with it. Had they been eager adventurers, maybe, but they don’t seem very excited at the prospect, and don’t question enough to be skeptics.
And other than a sense of being outsiders, Kay does nothing with the group’s suddenly appearance in this other world. Except for a few random passages alluding to parents, there seems to be very little concern that they have left behind family, friends, studies and the world they knew on a whim, even when it becomes quite evident that they are expected to be more than mere “guests”, and that their “crossing over” would not only change the history of this world, but perhaps all the other worlds associated with it. Not only are questions such as “why these five?”, and “what originally brought them together in the first place?” not answered, they aren’t even asked. Granted, our world has become more suspect and we are a much more suspicious people than we were in the mid-1980s, but this acceptance without examination was distancing from the onset.
There is also the discomfort of moving from a modern world to a more medieval one, in tone, language and experiences. The very names – Kevin, Kimberly, Dave – jar sensibilities when dropped into Fionavar society (for the reader – there is such complete acceptance in the book that nary an eyebrow is raised by anything these people say or do); changing Paul to Pwyll helps (especially since he has the unfortunate full name of Paul Schaffer – I couldn’t get the image of a pompous hipster bandleader out of my head, but that’s not really Kay’s fault), as does having Dave known as Davor, making it easier to make the transition between the modern man and the Dalrei warrior. But how do people who knew nothing of life beyond metropolitan Toronto have the ability to fight with swords and axes, and the werewithall to ride a horse for days on end with nothing more than soreness upon dismounting? Sleeping on the ground out of doors and moving easily with capes and floor length gowns? How can they so easily not miss modern conveniences such as telephones and cars? These anomalies are not even addressed in The Fionavar Tapestry.
Then there are the too obvious parallels with Tolkien’s Middle-earth. Fionavar is peopled with races of men (both the Gondorian soldier type from the kingdoms of Brennin and Cathal, and the Dalrei, which are the Riders of Rohan with a huge chunk of Native American culture mixed in). There are also contentious, stocky Dwarves and the otherworldly beautiful and spiritual lios alfar (i.e.: elves) who, incidentally, inhabit a kingdom mantled in mist that not only hides the rightful inhabitants but bewitches others who dare to enter so that they are lost in time and place, never to emerge again. (Can you say, “Doriath”?). Oh, yes, there are also wizar…. Er, mages. Even though Kay infuses his world with non-Tolkien aspects such as gods and goddesses, priestesses, shamans and shamanistic giants – and has nothing akin to hobbits – the similarities are just too many to be shaken off.
The parallels occur on the nasty side, as well. There are goblins (svart alfar) and orcs (urgach) and a treacherous High Wiz… er, mage, blinded by ambition, who turns from the Light to the Dark in a stunning betrayal, taking all by surprise. Then there is the dark lord himself, the timeless Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller, who was once defeated thousands of years before, but has risen again in his dark fortress of Starkadh.
True, Kay takes this borrowed framework and infuses it with his own enchantments, mythologies and confrontations, some of which are truly breathtaking (and heart rending). The sacrifice of the Summer Tree, the friction between the mages and the priestesses of Dana, and the ritual that is the eltor hunt of the Dalrei were all breathtaking. Kay does treat the mythos of his world with respect; there is some good writing here. But there are too few bright spots and too much is treated superficially.
But we are never completely drawn into this world, nor do we particularly care what happens. Kay strives hard to tug at our emotions with beautiful tableaus and emotional turmoil, but it comes off as shallow melodrama rather than substantial literature. Everything is so overwrought and emotive that when something of real import does happen, it doesn’t stand out from the everyday angst. And there is virtually nothing that is everyday, common, or regular in Fionavar – most of what we see is the ultimate: the purest loves, the most beauteous of women, the absolute best fighter or rider or duelist or lover, the deepest suffering or sorrow, the greatest sacrifice, etc., over and over again. After a while, my reaction became either “yeah, right” or “get over it, dude!”
Then there are the eternal convenient saves. When all seems lost, something would intervene to save the day. For as scary as the Big Bad Rakoth is, he never wins. Ever. Every engagement is thwarted by something unexpected. An unknown power suddenly manifests itself. A god intervenes. A magical object goes into overdrive, or exhibits a new, miraculous power. The cavalry arrives. Somehow, someone finds within themselves a wellspring of endurance, power, or personal resolve that they never knew they had. A champion appears out of no where. A goddess takes a liking to a mortal. Legends arise to save the day. Understanding is unveiled… Evil never wins. Never. Every engagement, every conflict, every battle, every contest, the good either wins or makes it out alive. Every. Stinking. Time.
While there are a few times where the good guy dies, it is in a willing sacrifice with the actions bringing about an even greater good. All the other deaths are remote, anonymous, stated as terrible but not demonstrated as such. Our minds agree that yes, these deaths are wrong, but our hearts are not touched because we have not been drawn into this world enough to care. Therefore, the conflict is lacking, the drama is contrived, the emotions are overwrought and the actions unbelievable.
Now, this isn’t to say that Kay doesn’t show flashes of talent, or that The Fionavar Tapestry is completely unreadable. Like I said earlier, there are some interesting ideas and wonderfully written passages. When I finished the third book, I did feel uplifted; it did have a positive resonance in my heart, I will admit it.
But was it worth it? With apologies to those who love this trilogy, no (in my opinion, of course). I would have rather have spent my time reading something far more satisfying. In fact, I’m glad that I read Yasabel and The Last Light of the Sun first; had my first glimpse of Guy Gavriel Kay been The Fionavar Tapestry, I may not have sought him out further. That would have truly been a loss, for Kay’s later works are vastly superior to this one. So take my word for it – unless you really are into epic, emotive romantic fantasy, skip The Fionavar Tapestry and read The Last Light of the Sun, instead. You’ll be glad you did.