Thursday, 14 May 2020

The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay

If one is inclined to such things, I think that one could create a division of readers between those who pick up a book for some reason (say a photo) then set it down because they're already reading something, and those who think "hey, I haven't read this in a while, I wonder how it holds up". I'm not sure what this division indicates - maybe some sort of discipline and focus, perhaps - but it probably exists.

In any case, I am in the latter, so when I picked up The Summer Tree for some Wyrd & Wonder related photo, I had a little look inside. 

Then I sat down and started reading. Which is very convenient as today's prompt is 'Out of this world', and this is arguably the greatest Portal Fantasy at all.

The main thing to know about The Summer Tree (and the Fionavar Tapestry in general) is that it is high fantasy to the bone. It couldn't get any higher if it was it Snoop Dogg on a space shuttle.

Indeed, Kay's on the record as saying:

"At one significant level I wrote the Fionavar Tapestry with the metaphor in mind of throwing down a gauntlet to all of the people who are perceived as having diminished and degraded the genre of high fantasy in the post- Tolkien period by writing derivative, mercenary, lazy fantasies. I saw myself to some degree as trying to say: I'm going to use as many of the central motifs and themes of high fantasy as I can, and I shall try to give the lie to those who have debased it, by showing that there's still a great deal of life in the genre, that it's infinitely larger than twenty years' of hack work. We're not capable of debasing it, ultimately."

The premise here is that five students from Toronto are whisked away to the magical world of Fionavar. Ostensibly it is to celebrate the reign of High King Ailell; we quickly learn there are other reasons and as the story unfolds, it seems more and more threads are added to the tapestry by the five as war and darkness threatens to overtake the whole world. It is not a breathtakingly original premise, nor is it meant to be. The joy of The Summer Tree lies in its execution.

If its deliberate faith with high fantasy is one potential barrier to enjoyment, so too is its prose. Kay has never been a man shy of the dramatic and the dense, but in his first book it hit its peak. He adopts a semi-mythical style, deliberately a little archaic in its distant describing of events before swooping into close third with little warning. I enjoy it and it's grown even more on me over the years but even so, there's no doubt sometimes it gets a little too purple and melodramatic.

For those I haven't driven off, let me share a little of the book's joys. The foremost to me is the book's cast, a huge unwieldy thing with five co-protagonists of almost equal weight and a massive array of supporting actors. It would be easy to get lost, to get no sense of who they are, yet I always understand. Kay leans heavily on mythic resonance and stereotype (the five students can be mapped loosely onto the Breakfast Club if desired) but gives each depth and humanity.

So it is that the brilliant, daredevil prince Diarmuid is still calculating and hurt by betrayal from those closest to him; that the Odinistic mage Loren is wise, courageous and compassionate, yet not always evenly so due to his prejudices; the benign, friendly Ivor can still get jealous at his son's exploits; and so on.

The stars are, of course, the stars though. My favourite arcs belong to Paul and Dave, both in some part due to resonance, for I have felt suicidal ideation and I have felt out of place, and the healing journey is a beautiful thing. The girls' arcs are at this point more set-up for the trilogy than wonderful in their own right, but they reveal interesting characters. Jennifer - beautiful, charming, with a mind of her own - could easily be a very stock archetype but Kay gives her moments of meanness, of feeling lost, that stop her from being perfect and therefore, boring. The most interesting moment though is when she and the High Priestess Jaelle accuse each other of having never been in love; to me, on the Xth read-through, it is a particularly important tell. Kim's arc seems obvious at this point, the joyous, free-spirited girl who suddenly finds herself named Seer and wielding a wild magic that has little care for kindness or freedom. She's probably the most fun to read about; Kim enjoys life.

Kevin's is probably the cleverest though, the most interesting. Handsome, witty, athletic, and incredibly smart, the blond Kevin is literally and metaphorically the golden boy. He pushes to go to Fionavar, filled with the desire for adventure. Yet when he gets there, while he enjoys himself, he finds himself in a new and unwelcome role as the luggage. Few enjoy being that person, but for a man who's always been the opposite? It is hard, and forces a gradual change in who he is.

Some might say Kay undersells this arc, indeed all of them. I don't think that's entirely unfair but a truer way of stating it is that Kay, like Tolkien before him, sketches the broad details with the aim of having his readers evoke the reality of it in their mind. Little details, such as Kevin's protectiveness of his father and the importance Dave puts on a kiss, are keys to treasure rooms. It might not work for everyone, but for those whom it does, it creates greatness.

The result of such an approach is that Kay can cram a huge amount of story and theme into such a comparatively tiny space. It is impossible to imagine authors influenced by Jordan- and Martin-esque levels of detail managing it. Not a diss, just a reflection on different strengths, and one that is key to my understanding of high fantasy being different from epic. High fantasy doesn't try to do it all, it just tries to give us this feeling of myth and legend, splendid and slightly moralising. My paperback version weighs in at 400 pages and despite the heavy prose, The Summer Tree reads quick.  

What I love most about this book though, is the atmosphere and theme. The Summer Tree is filled with those who are larger than life, mythic figures brought to life; wise and beautiful, strong and harsh, cruel and kind. Yet they are still human, still at times petty and foolish and concerned with mundanities. To plunge five people from this planet into these waters shows the extremes of both ends, both making the superhuman human and the human superhuman. That is what I desire from my fantasy. That's why The Summer Tree is my favourite portal fantasy and will be read again and again.


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