Months have passed since Kim transported her Canadian companions back from Fionavar to our world, and Jennifer now carries the child of Rakoth Maugrim. She is determined, against her friends’ advice, to bring the baby to term; to thwart her captor, and perhaps the Weaver herself, by bringing about an element of chance unforeseen. When Jennifer delivers her little bundle of defiance into the hands of a familiar loving family, Kim leads the group to England to summon once more the Warrior who has fought countless battles in penance for an ancient crime, and who will journey by their sides back to Fionavar — which is held in the grip of an unnatural winter — for the standoff against Maugrim’s forces.
The second book of the Fionavar Tapestry is a smoother ride than the first, although its widening of scope and its need to lay the groundwork for the tour de force that is the final book lends a disjointed feel to the narrative at times. The prose is a little more restrained without losing either the lyricism that is the hallmark of most of Kay’s writing or the melodrama that gives the trilogy its distinctive tone. One thing that immediately strikes me here is how much Kay’s female characters have evolved, because I complained about their relative lack of three-dimensionality in the first book when compared to the menfolk. The previously shrewish Jaelle gains a convincing reason for her cold exterior, and in relating to some of the other characters, especially the women, she borders on likeable. Kim always possessed the greatest depth of any of the lead five except for Paul, but this book does a good job of highlighting her inner struggle over what she has become in donning the role of the Seer and of how to reconcile those doubts with the need to live up to the gravity her words are now accorded. And Jennifer… Jennifer is very much the heart and soul of The Wandering Fire, but in order to talk about why, I need to address one of the book’s major themes.
Like The Summer Tree before it, The Wandering Fire deals with a major protagonist’s powerful sacrifice, among all the other smaller but no less poignant sacrifices that line its pages. But it’s the first book that I associate with sacrifice as a theme. When I think of The Wandering Fire, I think of destiny. The key sacrifice here is not so much a choice as it is a recognition of an inevitability. Characters lesser in role but not in heart march towards their fates with heads held high, though those fates are as clear to them as they are to the reader. The timeless love and heartbreak of the Warrior and his lady has repeated itself so unfailingly throughout the ages that they know the path of their reunion and their defeat before they even lay eyes on one another again. The choices to be made here, the moments that distinguish the noble of spirit, are in how they respond to the moments they know are coming. And this is where I talk about Jennifer, because in her will to bring about an element of randomness that cannot be controlled, no matter what it costs her, no matter what it risks for so many worlds, Jennifer is perhaps the character with the greatest power and agency. She isn’t swinging a sword, she isn’t foretelling the future, but I’d argue that she is the one fighting this battle on the most personal level, and perhaps with the greatest chance of winning. It’s a way of reclaiming what was taken from her in Starkadh that does no disservice to her state of turmoil, and continues to be an excellent handling of a delicate type of plot.
Where the first book wove elements of Arthurian legend throughout the story, the second plunges us headfirst into it. Taliesin and Cavall and the like are names that might pass the memory by in homes that aren’t lined with as many mythological books as my own, but Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot are as much the inescapable household love story, here at least, as Robin Hood and Maid Marian. There is a risk, when dealing with characters this weighty, of either failing to lend them appropriate gravitas or completely overshadowing your original creations. Kay deftly avoids both extremes. Every mention of Arthur Pendragon’s star-filled eyes sends a chill down the spine, but one never loses sight of how much has been stripped away and worn down from these timeless, tragic people. The closing lines of the book are perfect in their weighty sense of the burden of so many different kinds of love.
If there’s one storyline that continues to grate on my nerves, it’s everything to do with Diarmuid and Sharra. Diarmuid is a fantastic character when paired with people like Paul or Loren; when he’s around Sharra or his brother, I want to slap everyone involved. The scene with Shalhassan’s arrival in Brennin was so contrived it was painful. I felt like I was being told in the most heavy-handed of terms, rather than shown, that Diarmuid and Aileron had accomplished some legendary feat of statesmanship out of what seemed to me like the cursory level of political awareness I would expect of characters of their rank and status, and that Sharra was some sort of femme fatale instead of the petulant brat and liability to her kingdom she was coming across as. Although the dialogue is generally a step up from The Summer Tree, this is the clunkiest moment in the entire trilogy.
That moment aside, I find myself light on criticisms for this book. It suffers a little bit from middle book syndrome, in that there’s a fair bit of setup for what’s to come and it’s light on resolution, so the first and third books stand out more in my memory. Perhaps paradoxically, the disjointed nature of some of that setup left me thinking that a few storylines got short shrift, and the book could possibly have benefitted from another 50 pages to round them out.
On the whole, though, The Wandering Fire is a beautiful work of fantasy and a moving tribute to legend — and the best is yet to come.