I am once again left awed and humbled by Guy Gavriel Kay. The Lions of Al-Rassan, which I read last year, left me very impressed, maybe to the point where I was a little afraid to read more of his work, afraid that Al-Rassan was the exception rather than the rule. I finished reading The Fionavar Tapestry last night and it really wasn’t as good… it was better.
The story seems unpromising at first, more the stuff of fan fiction and of fourth-grade essay-writing than of a fantasy epic: five university students from Toronto get transported to Fionavar, the first of the Weaver’s worlds. Loren Silvercloak, a mage, is the one who brings them from one world to the other. He says he has been tasked to bring these strangers to celebrate his King’s fiftieth year of rulership – and although that is not untrue, there is so much more for which Kimberley, Kevin, Jennifer, Dave and Paul are needed in Fionavar.
And that is as far as I want to go in terms of describing the plot. While I don’t have any qualms about spoiling the plot of a bad novel, I don’t want to say too much about something this excellent. Read it yourselves, I say.
A few things can be said, though, without delving too deeply into the plot. Kay is a master storyteller. Back when I wrote my review of The Lions of Al-Rassan I mostly emphasized how lovable the characters are, and the same goes for Fionavar. The only difference is that where Al-Rassan is very detailed and takes it slow, The Fionavar Tapestry soon plunges headlong into the story, a mad rush of settings and events and characters. The three books of the trilogy have, if you add everything up, just barely over a thousand pages. That doesn’t sound short, true, but the trilogy is in every sense a fantasy epic. I’m not saying that the books are too short, not at all, but the writing is incredibly compressed… and still very brilliant, page after page. While the first book, The Summer Tree, seems more like an introduction to Fionavar and its rich history and wealth of characters, the second and third books, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road respectively, deal more intimately with the five protagonists and their motivations. And Kay pulls off an amazing feat in that respect. The characters never fall back into cliché; even (or maybe especially) when you think that you got one of them figured out, he or she will usually do something that goes against all those worn-out storytelling conventions that make most other fantasy “epics” so unreadable.
There is one other thing that makes these books so special, though. Pessimism has become very hip today. Just look at Patrick Rothfuss or Joe Abercrombie or any other of the new fantasy superstars. Not so with Kay and The Fionavar Tapestry. If there is one thing that permeates the entire series it is how good its characters are. Not just well-written, but good to the core of their beings. They love the Light, as Kimberly would say. And she’s right. Just like in Sunshine or Battle for Terra, you just feel for the characters, love them and hope that nothing bad will befall them, because they believe in the good in everyone, and so by extension do you while reading about them.
These are three very special books. I don’t know if I will ever re-read them, because the first time around was a very intense experience and I often find it hard to submit myself to such experiences a second time. But I really, really advise you to give these books a chance. They are well worth it.