While J R R Tolkien has been described as having many successors in the field of epic fantasy, few are as deserving of this title as Canadian author Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay in fact assisted Tolkien’s son Christopher in the editorial construction of the unfinished, posthumously published The Silmarillion but is better known now as the author of the three books that make up the epic fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road). While the eighties unfortunately gave us a number of trashy Tolkien-wannabe novels, Kay’s trilogy towers above most of the genre due to the quality of his writing and, crucially, the time and love that he invested in the creation of the fantasy world of Fionavar, one of the most iconic and copied of all imaginary fictional realms.
The Summer Tree begins with five young people from our own world being precipitated into Fionavar, which is described as the first of all worlds., one of which Earth is but a shadow. Their calling there is to fulfil their destiny in the terrifying war brought about by the return of the fallen god Rakoth Maugrim. As is illustrated by this brief description, there is much that at first appears familiar about this story but in truth Fionavar could not be further from Tolkien’s often cosy Middle-Earth. Rakoth Maugrim is a truly odious villain and, unlike Sauron – who is more of a cipher than a real character in Lord of the Rings – he takes an active role as the nemesis of the heroes, personally hurting (and killing) them and their friends and allies. Elves and Dwarves appear in The Fionavar Tapestry but are presented in a very human way – as readers we genuinely feel for them and the Elves (whom Kay refers to by the Norse term lios alfar) in particular suffer greatly at the hands of Maugrim and his minions. It also helps that the main human characters are from our own world, which means that we always identify with them as protagonists
It is in the second book, The Wandering Fire, that the other major strength of the series – Kay’s scholarly grasp of mythology and myth-making – becomes more apparent. Earth is one of the many worlds which is a shadow of Fionavar and this perhaps explains why there are many similarities in terms of culture, setting and background. There are barbarian tribes living in the mountainous east, nomads dwelling on the central plains, spirits haunt the ancient Pendaran Wood, the kingdom of Brennin is a feudal monarchy and the garden country of Cathal in the far south is a Sultanate. In The Wandering Fire, Kay makes powerful and evocative use of real world mythology – the Warrior condemned is summoned from his resting place, Owein and the seven kings of the Wild Hunt are called up from the Cave of the Sleepers, the dead are awakened from their rest and the undead are sent to their doom. All sorts of ancient curses and prophecies are set in motion in preparation for the ultimate battle against the evil of Rakoth Maugrim and the hordes of the Dark in the final novel in the trilogy, The Darkest Road.
The Fionavar Tapestry benefits greatly from being a trilogy, which ensures that while the series is long enough to have a truly epic feel, it never seems padded. You get the sense, reading the books, that Kay has picked virtually every single word with the utmost care (he spent almost ten years planning the novels). This preparation really pays off in particular with regard to the conclusion of the trilogy, which manages to be heartbreaking but entirely satisfying. Having told the story, Kay ended The Fionavar Tapestry and, although I’m sure that he must have felt tempted over the years, never wrote any sequels to his fantasy masterwork. Again, this gives the trilogy a special feel and is another refreshing contrast to those authors that feel that it’s necessary to drag out series long past their sell-by dates!
Although Kay never wrote any direct sequels to his Fionavar novels, or any out-and-out epic fantasy at all afterwards, he later virtually created and became the master of a new genre of ‘historical fantasy’ – books set in fantasy worlds with little magic and strong similarities to periods of real world history. These include A Song for Arbonne, which is set in a realm which resembles medieval France; Tigana, which appears similar to Italy during the Renaissance era; and The Last Light of the Sun, which is set in a place that echoes Britain during the Dark Ages, complete with pseudo-Vikings, Celts and Anglo-Saxons. Although there is much to recommend all of these books, and the others that Kay has written, for me none of them quite capture the same magic as Kay’s original fantasy trilogy. As an interesting side-note, I should mention that although the three books I mentioned above are stand-alone novels and have no connection to each other or The Fionavar Tapestry, they each make a single reference to a place that is the first of all worlds, variously called Finavir, Fionvara and Fionvarre. Sound familiar?
Kay’s website, complete with excerpts from his novels, can be reached by clicking on the following link: http://www.brightweavings.com/index.htm