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Guy Gavriel Kay – The Summer Tree

February 14, 2008

20. The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (1984)
The Fionavar Tapestry, Book 1

Length: 400 pages

Genre: Fantasy

Started: 12 February 2008
Finished: 14 February 2008

Summary: Five friends, Dave, Paul, Kevin, Kim, and Jen, are pulled from our world into Fionavar, the first of all worlds, by the mage Loren Silvercloak. They initially think they are there merely as a spectacle at the King’s festival, but the truth goes much deeper. They have roles to play in Fionavar, roles that may have been woven for them from the origin of time – the seer, the leader, the fighter, the maiden, the sacrifice – and they must accept and grow into these roles, for Rakoth the Unraveller has broken free of his thousand-years’-binding, and war is coming, a great war of the Light against the Dark.

Review: Kay (like many authors) has a penchant for dropping the reader into the middle of a scene with no explanation of who the characters are, what their relationships are to each other, and what’s going on in the world(s) that they are moving through; only slowly releasing these details as the story builds. For example, I initially found the prologue to Tigana to be completely impenetrable and baffling, and had to go back and re-read it after I’d read a few chapters and had gained my footing in the story. Unfortunately, in The Summer Tree, I didn’t really find my footing until the last third of the book, and even then, it was tenuous. Every time I thought I had a decent understanding of what was going on, some new element (person, cultural custom with clear mythic significance, historical event, etc.) would be introduced in a way where it was clearly meant to be important, but it was never explained how or why, at least not within the span that I can hold these kind of things in my memory. To much in media res-ing and not enough actual explanation for my taste. The main thread of the action is clear enough, but a lot of the significance of the details is lost on me, and likely to remain so, unless I finish the trilogy and immediately re-read it.

Kay’s writing is also not consistently elegant as it becomes in his later books, either, shooting for epic and lyrical but landing occasionally on stilted or ponderous. When it works, though, as in the third section of the book, it’s incredible. Kay’s ability to create imagery and language that seems to vibrate in the deep core of his reader is certainly present in this book, although it is not as refined or consistent as it becomes in his later work, the seeds of it certainly shine through. One thing that is present in full force here is Kay’s ability to create multi-dimensional, layered, and sympathetic characters, full of humor, pathos, and finely-tuned dialogue. By the end of the book, I cared about the characters enough that that alone would have spurred me to pick up the next book in the trilogy, even without being interested in the story (which I am). 3.5 out of 5 stars.

Recommendation: Not the most consistent or most polished of books, and if you’re new to Kay’s writing, I wouldn’t start here. Still, an average book by Kay is better than a good book by most fantasy writers out there; this one is worth the read.

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First Line: After the war was over, they bound him under the mountain.

Vocab:

  • p. 42: “‘I was there, you clown! I was sitting beside you. And I’ve still got stains on my green doublet from when they started throwing fruit at you.’ ‘Poltroons! What can you expect in Seresh?’” – a wretched coward; craven.
  • p. 97: “Screened by darkness and the sound of the river, they climbed up to where the grass was green and the scent of moss and cyclamen greeted them.” – any low-growing plant of the genus Cyclamen, belonging to the primrose family, having tuberous rootstocks and nodding white, purple, pink, or crimson flowers
  • p. 188: “The battle the two goddesses foreknew – for war was their demesne – but not the resolution. A portent then, a presaging, a beginning.” – territory over which rule or control is exercised
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One Comment leave one →
  1. orchidus permalink
    January 1, 2009 6:24 pm

    Well-said. I also had trouble getting into the story, until action finally kicked in half-way through. I know what you mean about the imagery and eloquence of his writing in the third section. I was simply amazed at the power of it. Thanks for the wonderful review! Looking forward to the next two books.

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