The Summer Tree
By Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay is an author I've been meaning to read for quite a while, so I figured it was high time I picked up one of his books. I was well aware that his Fionavar Tapestry trilogy is not generally regarded to be his best work, but given that it had been some time since I'd read a traditional high fantasy, I decided to give The Summer Tree a go.
In essence, The Summer Tree is a combination of The Lord of the Rings and The Chronicles of Narnia: five young people from our own world (Toronto, specifically) are transported to Fionavar, the 'first of all worlds', by Gandalf Loren Silvercloak, a magician of the High Kingdom of Brennin, to take part in a celebration in honour of Brennin's king. Needless to say, things don't quite go to plan and our bunch of intrepid heroes end up getting into all sorts of escapades and adventures, as the shadow of war falls across the land due to the evil dark lord Sauron Rakoth breaking free from his prison and deciding it's time to kick some serious arse.
Jesting aside, it must be said that Tolkien's influence is stamped all over The Summer Tree, and at times it's suffocating: Loren Silvercloak is Gandalf in everything but name, Rakoth is a classic dark lord formed from Sauron's mould, The Dalrei bear many similarities to the Rohirrim, the svart alfar are goblins/orcs, while the lios alfar are elves, while the dwarves are...dwarves. It's all rather over-familiar; Fionavar feels too much like a watered-down version of Middle Earth, and in the book's first 200 pages Kay struggles to really drag his world out of Tolkien's shadow. That he does eventually manage to do so does him great credit, given the many debts his own world owes to Tolkien's world. As the story progresses the world of Fionavar does become a separate entity, mostly due to Kay's poetic prose, his world's well-developed history, and his ability to imbue his story with a sense of that history.
Given his clear ability to - eventually - portray a vibrant world with real depth, it's a real shame that Kay cheapens the whole story by transporting some kids from our own world into Fionavar and using this as the thrust for the story. Not only is it unnecessary, but it almost blows the credibility of the story to pieces in the first few chapters. I don't know about you, but if a bearded gentleman insisted I join him in his hotel room, then told me that he was a wizard from another world and that he wanted to take me back with him when he returned, I'd laugh nervously and politely take my leave (before running away very fast). Yet Kim, Jennifer, Paul and Kevin readily accept what Loren says about himself and the world of Fionavar as if they've known about the existence of the place all along, and they agree to accompany him without question. It's just so utterly ridiculous that I almost threw the book down in disgust - how intelligent, mature young people could be so gullible is beyond me. Only Dave shows any disbelief at Loren's words, and even then his protests seem a little halfhearted - as if Kay realised the implausibility of his characters' actions and tried to belatedly redress the balance.
This implausibility is worsened by the protagonists' reaction when they are transported to Fionavar - despite finding themselves in a new world that until the day before they didn't even know existed, they don't display even a slight degree of awe or wonder, instead behaving as if travelling between worlds is something they do all the time. It's all just so ludicrous that it seriously undermines the integrity of the story - as does the ease with which they settle into their new lives in Fionavar. Despite being from another world, they assume their new roles with so little difficulty that you can't help feel that Kay missed a golden opportunity to explore themes such as isolation, loneliness, and so on.
The protagonists' lack of reaction to their new surroundings is a serious flaw, and is unfortunately matched by their lack of individual personalities. Kim and Jennifer are - to put it bluntly - total Mary Sues, with very little depth or development. Their respective personal journeys could have been so powerful, but are seriously lessened by the fact that we just don't know much about them, and it's hard to fully emotionally engage with their situations. This is frustrating, as the scene involving Jennifer right at the end of the book could have been so powerful, but falls flat instead due to a lack of emotional attachment. The same is largely true of Kevin and Dave - like their female companions, they lack genuine depth and personality. Of the five companions from our own world, only Paul is well developed and given a convincing, emotional backstory and intriguing personality.
The characters native to Fionavar are generally more of a success - Diarmuid, Ivor and Matt Soren possess greater depth and stronger personalities. Kay certainly appears more comfortable writing about characters from a fantasy world than characters from the real world, so you wonder why he didn't just scrap the whole inter-world scenario and just set the story entirely in Fionavar. Kay just doesn't handle the scenario well, and in the first half of the book really struggles to differentiate between the protagonists - there are plenty of confusing POV changes, and the characters struggle for 'screen time' with the end result that their personalities just don't really come through at all.
So far I've probably painted a pretty negative picture of The Summer Tree - weak characters, flawed handling of the central premise, over-reliance on tropes engendered by Tolkien...so it might surprise you that despite these issues I actually quite enjoyed this book.
Much of my eventual enjoyment was the result of Kay's prose - easily the strongest element of the book, Kay's writing is fluid, poetic and often very atmospheric. He mostly handles exposition well, and manages to really imbue the story with a sense of history that helps the reader to get under the skin of the world. There's a definite sense of wonder, a feeling of adventure and escapism that is too often lacking in more modern fantasy, and it's nice to enjoy that feeling again.
There are some other aspects that Kay handles well - the role of the Summer Tree is suitably profound, and Paul's experience with the tree is both powerful and emotional. The chapters involving the Dalrei, in which we see some of their culture and way of life, are also dealt with impressively (though why they weren't interspersed with the earlier chapters set in Brennin, rather than making up a separate chunk of their own and thus messing up the chronology, is a bit of a mystery).
Verdict: The Summer Tree is a flawed novel - there are serious issues with the characterisation of the protagonists, while Kay's world borrows too heavily from Middle Earth. Yet his prose often sparkles and he demonstrates a storyteller's knack for bringing his world to life and imbuing it with the weight and depth of history. While I'm not yet sure if I'll read the rest of the trilogy, the obvious potential here clearly explains why some of Kay's later works are highly regarded, and I'll certainly be checking them out at least.