Our heroes, once students from Canada, now transformed into part of the warp and weft of legend, commence the final struggle against the Unraveller. Paul, Arthur, and their comrades from Brennin have vanquished Metran at Cader Sedat and brought Lancelot back to complete the Warrior’s path of suffering. As her love sails to the seat of the Cauldron of Khath Meigol and her son seeks out her love and understanding, Jennifer awaits in Anor Lisen, where Amairgen’s lover once stood her own vigil against his return. Kim goes to free the Paraiko from the svart alfar, but the Baelrath she bears will bend all to a single purpose, one that conflicts with the giants’ very nature. The Dalrei, accompanied by Dave, narrowly escaped the destruction of Owein’s Hunt unleashed, and fresh from their costly victory against Maugrim’s ambush they join with the lios alfar and the men of Brennin and Cathal to mass against Rakoth’s forces.
I’ve been rereading the Fionavar books alongside some friends from a book club, and one of our first time readers felt that Kay has been pulling his punches when it comes to the price paid by the heroes so far and to people staying dead. I’ve had to bite my lip to refrain from telling her just how much I think this book will change her mind. There’s not a single punch pulled here. The final act of the Tapestry is the weightiest, the bloodiest, the most devastating — but it’s not grim. There’s been a trend in modern fantasy to embrace the hopeless, and to equate the gravity of a work with its cynicism, but much as I appreciate many examples of that kind of fiction, I think one reason why the Fionavar books sit on my favourites shelf and so many of them don’t is because I have an even greater appreciation for the skill required in using that level of darkness to juxtapose the light.
And this is exactly what, in my opinion, elevates The Darkest Road above its predecessors to become the finest work in the trilogy. Some very beloved names die in cruel and unforgiving ways, but what they accomplish with their deaths frames the sacrifice in a way that is as beautiful as it is bitter. Others survive the loss of loves, of family, of cherished companions, and find the strength to keep on fighting to bring the light back into the world and eventually into their own lives. Without that ever popular cynicism to ground it, it should have been either too preachy or too trite. It isn’t. It’s pitch perfect.
For a book that is a pretty slender tome compared to most fat epic fantasies, it covers an immense amount of ground, bringing payoff to all of the loose strands of story without resulting in the feeling that it’s all too neatly tied up in a bow. The only exception are the romantic relationships, where it felt a little too much like Kay needed enough of the surviving characters to be neatly paired off that he forced one or two unions — or at least the promise of them — that weren’t entirely natural after the groundwork laid, but it was a relatively minor false note that didn’t take much page count. The world is so rich at this point, it’s impressive that Kay does so much with so little, breathing life into every corner without requiring much in the way of exposition. It’s aided by the sense of depth and timelessness brought about by the inclusion of real world mythology, but I continue to admire the deft hand with which he blends the mythological with the imagined, as in so many other authors’ hands it’s a technique that makes the world feel flat to me, not inhabited. The writing is pure poetry. Those rough edges I pointed to in The Summer Tree have been thoroughly filed away.
And all of these are fantastic qualities for an epic fantasy to have, and if they were all it had it would still be a fantastic novel. But the thing I love most about The Darkest Road is its celebration of free will. Destiny was such a strong theme in The Wandering Fire, and for me Jennifer was the heart and soul of that book because she refused to bow to it, because she made a huge personal sacrifice so that something could exist outside of fate, something random that no one could control — not even her, for all it might cost her. The release of Owein’s Hunt was an interesting exploration of the relationship between destiny and free will as well, because their return came about from Finn accepting his fate as the child who would lead them, but that fate was to be part of something that is inherently chaotic, a wild and capricious force that throws the careful weave of destiny into disarray. And in this final book, so very much hinges on individual choices to defy what seems preordained, even though the price is so high and the hopes so frail. To end an ageless cycle of suffering by taking another man’s death, even though you finally have everything to live for; to fly, at the last moment; to jump; to fall; to forgive.
Kay has, I feel, a grasp of something that a lot of fantasy authors miss and that is a keystone in why his work feels so powerful. It’s his understanding that even in the middle of world-shaking events, you don’t make something truly epic just by going big, you do it by showing the little moments that have big consequences. Because that’s what we can relate to, that’s what our lives turn on, and that, ultimately, is what worlds turn on, even if the worlds are not our own. And although the Fionavar trilogy is in a rather different vein from the other stories that Kay went on to write, nowhere, perhaps, is that understanding more fully expressed than here in The Darkest Road.