In high school, I read almost exclusively fantasy, the few exceptions being either in the Freaky Stories collection or written by Jane Austen. Yet, I managed to ignore the existence of Canada’s own Guy Gavriel Kay until cégep, by which time my to-read list had already blown out of proportions. Even when my mother found the whole Fionavar Tapestry trilogy for something like a buck a piece, I didn’t start reading right away. It was a fantasy short story contest, which I ended up not even doing, that got me started… and addicted.
It’s been a long time since a book captivated me this much. Every time I wasn’t reading, I’d wish I was. I stayed up late because I was unable to stop reading. It made me remember why I used to love reading fantasy so much, although it also reminded me of some of the things that ended up boring me out of fantasy novels…
I read the French translation, so I couldn’t talk about the language. However, there is one writing device that ended up getting on my nerves because I felt it was over-used: that technique where you make something surprising happen and then explain how the situation came to this. I don’t hate the technique per say; it can be super interesting and effective. But everything is better in moderation. I don’t know if a non-writer would notice it though.
The world of Fionavar is strongly inspired by The Lord of the Rings (with maybe some Narnia?), which in many other books made me roll my eyes, but The Summer Tree brings enough new elements (paganism-inspired gods, for example) and is of sufficient general quality that I didn’t mind too much. What I did mind a bit was the weird names in seemingly another language while everybody in Fionavar was speaking English. It’s one of those things that Tolkien did well, but that his “copycats” should drop. That’s a minor thing, though.
The characters are interesting enough, the guys especially. One of them, my favourite, the one I identified the most with, felt more “alive” than most fantasy characters. The girls… meh. Maybe other girls could relate to them; I couldn’t. But that’s often the case, especially with girls-written-by-male-author. In the second volume (yes, I couldn’t wait to start the next book in the trilogy), one of the female characters becomes much more interesting though.
The book was written in the 80s and… it smells of the 80s, too. The mindset, the preoccupations, that kind of things. It was also the rise of feminism and sexual liberation… consequently, in Fionavar, guys seem unable to spend a single night alone in their beds: girls won’t leave them alone. Such girls typically don’t even have names and none of them ever gets the guy to think they might want to start a relationship with them (in a few instances, the guy even thinks about starting a relationship with another girl the very next day!). It sounds like a second-rate porn trope. The redeeming points here are that said scenes are non-explicit and typically span on over a paragraph each. Not so bad as to make me hate the book or author, but annoying enough for me to lower my rating by 0.5 points.
Just like The Lord of the Rings, the book can’t stand alone. There is “some sort of ending”, but of the type that feels like “here ends the first act” more than “here could have ended the story if the writer hadn’t felt like writing a sequel”. Its structure is, again, similar to that of The Lord of the Rings: when the characters get separated, you first follow one party, and then the next. And boy do you want to follow and see where it leads!
Who would I recommend this to? Adult or young adult fans of fantasy, especially non-writing men or boys. Although, outside from the great classics by Tolkien and CS Lewis and the like, I’d sooner recommend Robin Hobb’s The Farseer Trilogy. I might need to reread that one so I can properly critic it.