The Summer Tree • 1984 • Fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Rating: 4.5 out of 5.

Five Canadian students are thrown into the magical land Fionavar threatened by a god. Each one shows heroism in different ways.

This start of the Fionavar-trilogy feels like a template mashup of Silmarillion, Zelazny’s Amber series and Wheel of Time (I know, the last one was written later) and there are people discarding it as a copy-over. But wait!

Silmarillion: mythopoeic style with all the short introductions of names, hints and titbits of ancient history and landscape descriptions. Kay helped Christopher Tolkien with editing the Silmarillion before, and this influence certainly shines through. There is the one god-like antagonist coming up. The landscape is Beleriand with Angband in the North, the Blue Mountains in the East and the Elves’ target in the West. Mix it with “Native American’s” Dalrei instead of Rohirrim and Brennin instead of Gondor and Pendaran instead of Mirkwood.

Amber series: contemporary characters brought to a mediaeval world like Amber, a world which is at the center of things.

Wheel of Time: weaving a destiny pattern.

I love all three themes and series, especially the mythopoeic aspect. I can see where others would have problems with that one, though. Probably it is a matter of taste and background.
If you haven’t thrown it away because of this style and references, you will discover richness: oh those background stories and those epic deeds!

Kay is no GRRM but some of his protagonists will suffer horribly and in epic ways and it is not certain that good will succeed. The novel is a strong contrast to Kay’s newer work which are not so fast-paced.
The characters develop, overcome their problems and we get a very deep impression how they feel and why they react in certain ways.
His world-building is good, though not original: There are real mages, interferring gods, flying unicorns. He references our world’s mythology in numerous places, like the world-tree Yggdrasil for the Summer Tree, the ravens Huginn and Muninn or the Wild Hunt from German mythology.

One complaint I have is that we don’t get a good motivation why the students choose to go Fionavar.

His writing is sophisticated and beautiful but not flowerish. You can feel how it developed in later works, e.g. in Tigana but this already is great stuff, an easy read with a good tension arc.

For more information and background, go to the author’s authorized website Bright Weaving!

Meta: isfdb. This is a copied review from GR; I’ve read it in 2014

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44 Responses to The Summer Tree • 1984 • Fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. pdtillman says:

    Hmm. I’ve seen a couple of mentions of this lately. Maybe a review article on Quest Fantasies in the Tor newsletter? Anyway, you’ve convinced me to add it to Mt. TBR. Lower foothills, anyway….
    Thanks for your review reprint!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Ola G says:

    Hmm I’ll consider giving him another chance – his Tigana was a huge letdown for me, both due to unoriginality and character development issues. Glad you enjoyed it, though!

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I haven’t read either this one or Tigana. Only Kay I’ve read was Under Heaven and thought it was so-so. Not sure what to pick up by him.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. I tried to read this novel one some time ago, on the recommendation of a friend who loves it, but I soon found out it was not my proverbial cup of tea, starting with what you named as your only complaint, i.e. the lack of motivation for the characters to go to Fionavar – that was a big problem for me and it impacted my relationship with the story.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. piotrek says:

    Oh, I see there’s already a huge discussion… I like the Tapestry a lot, for much the same reasons you mention. I only object to your WoT analogy, we might say the influence went the other way (if Jordan read Kay), with the idea taken, tortured (isn’t WoT a torture porn enthusiast’s treasure?), and “sort of stretched, like butter scraped over too much bread”.
    I never read a Kay novel I wouldn’t like, even if I agree with some of Ola’s criticisms. She just lucks the sense of wonder and purity of heart needed to appreciate such gems.

    Liked by 2 people

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