I was 16 when I first read the Fionavar Tapestry. My boyfriend and I had just gone through what would be the first of many breakups. I’d argued with my family about the breakup. My three best friends were all leaving, and I would only see one of them again in the decade to come. While on holiday with them in the Netherlands I was thrown from my seat on a bus and injured my spine, which left me bedridden and unable to attend the goodbyes. I was, in short, as miserable as only a heartbroken 16-year-old girl can be.
And while I was stuck in bed, moping through the pain, I picked up the trilogy I’d bought in a sale months back and half-forgotten about. I read the whole trilogy in two days. I sobbed my heart out, and at the end of it all, the hurt felt washed clean. To this day, if I hear the music that I was listening to during two of the Tapestry’s most poignant moments of sacrifice, I am right back there, both in my vision of Fionavar and in my memory of that 16-year-old girl. Because as The Summer Tree will show us, music can unlock so much.
When I decided to reread all of Kay’s work, I was concerned that the Fionavar Tapestry, of all of them, might not live up to my memories. They are all powerful works, but this trilogy is the one that’s in my bones.
I needn’t have worried.
The Summer Tree starts off in Toronto, with five Canadian students who are all attending a lecture given by the mysterious Celtic expert Lorenzo Marcus, who is not given to making public appearances. Lorenzo Marcus is actually Loren Silvercloak, a mage of Fionavar, and he and his companion — actually the Dwarf King Matt Sören, source of Loren’s power — quickly contrive a reason to end up alone with the five and explain to them their real purpose in appearing there tonight. In the kingdom of Brennin in Fionavar, the first of all the worlds which reflect it, the High King is about to celebrate the 50th year of his reign, and Loren is to bring back five guests from our world to join the festivities.
After being assured of the reality of Loren’s power, the five agree to go. One, Dave, changes his mind at the last minute, and snatches his hand away during the ritual; when the transferral takes place, he is not in Brennin. The other four are quickly drawn into the kingdom’s politics. Brennin is suffering a great drought, and the answer calls for a sacrifice its king is not willing to make; Loren’s return is not warmly received by some of his compatriots, any more than the mages as a whole are warmly regarded by the fractious High Priestess of the Goddess Dana; their arrival in Fionavar sees the awakening in one of the group, Kim, of powers of her own; and beneath Rangat, warded by the peoples of five kingdoms, lies Rakoth Maugrim, silent but unslain.
The initial transition from Toronto to Fionavar is a bit rough. I’ve never been that fond of portal fantasies, and it almost seems like Kay isn’t either, since he addresses it in a rather short and perfunctory manner that’s rather at odds with the rich style he’ll soon transition to. The characters seem almost bored with the need for explanation, so blithely do they accept whatever is presented to them. If I were suddenly presented with something as paradigm-changing as the existence of magic and other worlds, and was then bodily thrown into the latter using the former, I’d probably be gibbering in a corner. A certain amount of shorthand is necessary in order to make portal fantasies viable (which is one of the reasons I don’t generally like them), otherwise the entire first book would consist of passing out, histrionics, and likely some form of psychotherapy, but even for the milieu this is abrupt.
Fortunately, it’s also a very small part of the book. Once the story settles into Fionavar, and once you accept that, plausible or not, the protagonists have settled into Fionavar, Kay’s enthusiasm for his world shines through on every level. I called his style rich, but in truth it’s not just rich here, it’s operatic. The small moments of significance in life which become larger in the pages of a story — the opening words of a love affair, the parting conversation left unfinished — are earth-shattering in Fionavar. The world turns on a song heard by chance at the wrong moment, and the love, tragedy, and sacrifice that follow are forces before which the gods themselves will bow.
In most hands it would be painfully overwrought. And to be fair, there are moments when the dialogue aims and misses, and the adult me winces in sympathy. (The 16-year-old me was probably swooning, though.) Early Kay though it may be, though, it’s still Kay, and no one but no one can play the heartstrings in quite the same way. If you reach the sequence from which this first book derives its title, you will understand why music is such a key to my memories of reading it. Listen to something that moves you while you read it, something that has its roots in loss and sacrifice but also in love, and I suspect it’ll be seared into your memory more than a decade from now as well.
The mythological background of the Fionavar Tapestry is immense — I think the books can come across quite Tolkienian at times, and I have no doubt that Kay’s work on The Silmarillion must’ve influenced that feel, but I think that the trilogy also comes across as a genuine epic in the same vein as The Lord of the Rings because it draws on so many of the same primary sources that inspired Tolkien. I had forgotten how much of that mythological groundwork is laid in The Summer Tree though. Touches of Norse flavour blend seamlessly with a good deal of the Welsh or Arthurian myth that will go on to be such a strong throughline in the series. Despite the fact that the Toronto scenes were weak for me, and my general feelings about portal fantasies, this is what made me warm to the framing device of traversal from our world to Fionavar. I always feel a bit let down when fantasies that don’t have a strong connection to our world in the narrative use a lot of our myth and legend in their world-building, because it feels like the author was too lazy to flesh out their creation in a more original fashion. Framed this way, however, it becomes powerful, resonant — of course the stories that echo in our minds when we stand in our world’s places of power like Stonehenge and Glastonbury Tor would be that much stronger in the First of All Worlds.
Along with his lyrical language, one of the foremost of Kay’s gifts, in my opinion, is his characterisation. This being his first novel, it’s a bit weaker here. There are still characters that move me to my core and that have lived in my mind for the last decade and more without losing their shine, like Diarmuid dan Ailell and Paul Schafer, but the women don’t have quite as much three-dimensionality as the female characters in his later works possess. I think Kim probably has the greatest depth and authenticity, though I may be conflating some of that with her development in the next two books. Jennifer is a very mild presence, but that’s something that makes more sense as her story develops and that aspect of her is resolved. Jaelle is a truly grating note, the kind of strong woman you usually see from authors who have yet to understand the difference between strong and shrewish, and there’s another female character who responds to a caddish lover by seemingly interpreting the adage ‘Hell hath no fury like a woman scorned’ as a personal challenge to demonstrate that Hell isn’t even playing in the same league, baby. Next time I get my heart broken, I’m relocating to Fionavar, where apparently even disproportionately violent responses to an ex-boyfriend will be A-OK with everyone up to and including the wounded party.
None of which should put you off, because they are first book hiccups that Kay soon learns to smooth away. And while I’m calling him out for a negative thing involving women, I also want to mention a positive thing involving women. There is a rape scene in this book. Usually when I come across a rape scene written by… well, anyone in the fantasy field, but especially male authors, I sigh and wonder how to write the section of my review that addresses all the things wrong with it without just repeating what I’ve said a dozen times before. Because really, it gets tiresome. Kay did something that shocked me when I first read it and shocks me even more now that I’m an adult feminist and find myself having the same reaction. He got it right. It was focused on the person it was actually about, the woman experiencing it. At no point was she deprotagonised. It was devoid of titillating detail, focused instead on the emotional responses to a violation. And although I won’t touch on spoilers, it’s something that actually has a reason to be there, that actually has a role in the story that matters, and that role is not to heighten a romantic lead’s manpain. Whenever the debate comes up on whether rape can serve a non-exploitative purpose in a story or whether it’s something that authors should just leave alone, I think of this book.
I think of this book often. That’s probably a succinct summary of why I’d recommend it so highly, really. Kay’s written more technically polished things, filled with characters that have even greater depth and with achingly beautiful prose. But it’s this book I think of, a year, five years, ten years after reading it. It’s the music and the sacrifice. It’s the most cathartic book I’ve ever read. Don’t turn to it for an example of what Kay’s writing is like, because to date, he’s never written anything quite like the Fionavar Tapestry again, and I doubt anyone could who has the benefit of experience that comes from having authored so many books. But do yourself a favour, and don’t skip it.