Reviews of The Fionavar Tapestry

This page contains the following reviews:

  • Douglas Barbour for the Malahat Review
  • Charles de Lint for Fantasy Review
  • Matthew Winslow for the Green Man Review

The Malahat Review

The Darkest Road is the third volume of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry, one of the best ‘epic fantasies’ since Tolkien’s monumental The Lord of the Rings. If you love this kind of fiction: run, do not walk, to your nearest bookstore and get all three volumes. If you’ve never ventured into fantasy before: try this one; if you don’t like The Fionavar Tapestry, you probably won’t like any of it. But it’s my feeling that The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road will prove irresistible to anyone who gives them a chance, for they are grand entertainments full of darkest darks and brightest glories, magnificent sacrifices and terrifying victories. What he has done with the tragic and romantic legend of Arthur, Guinevere, and Lancelot is alone enough to win him a place in the pantheon.

Kay, a Canadian who helped Tolkien’s son edit The Silmarillion, knows just how complex and difficult it is to build a truly viable fantasy universe. Far too many of the popular clones of The Lord of the Rings utterly lack the imaginative sweep and linguistic awareness which made that work such a paradigm. Although Kay has his own story to tell, he has obviously learned from the master. The story, in all its complexity, is of course about a grand battle between Good and Evil, this time in the first of all worlds, to which five University of Toronto grads have been transported. There they join forces with mages, dwarves, elves, and various tribes of humans to fight the minions of a dark god. The Fionavar Tapestry is so much better than this conventional outline suggests because Kay creates complex and emotionally profound characters, evokes the beauty and harshness of a rich natural world, and delves deeply into the heart of human sexuality. Indeed, the adult and subtle handling of sexuality in the text is something new in the genre: simply a part of the characters’ natural lives, it is also woven into the very warp and woof of the world he has created, touching and influencing gods and goddesses, all of nature, and all the people.

Epic fantasies are grand narratives in the old sense of the term. I confess I was completely caught up in Kay’s powerful weaving of all the various realistic and mythic threads of his tale. Both the young protagonists from ‘our world’ and the many noble figures in Fionavar are recognizably human and unpredictably emotional. There are stories within stories, some happening ‘now’, some erupting out of ancient history. Kay mixes his own myths and the mythologies we know with superb panache. There have been only two series since The Lord of the Rings which have measured up to its high standards: Ursula K. LeGuin’s The Earthsea Trilogy and Patricia McKillip’s Riddlemaster Trilogy. Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry now joins that select list. It’s the kind of ‘escape’ that brings you home.

Douglas Barbour
“The Malahat Review”
#79, June 1987

Charles de Lint, for Fantasy Review

Toronto lawyer Guy Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry is that rare trilogy in which all three volumes are integrally part of one long novel; the character and story threads woven in at the beginning of the first book are not fully tied up until the end of the final volume. Too many practitioners of the trilogy form merely give us three connected books, rather than one work divided into three volumes. Although the latter alternative can be frustrating when the volumes are published months apart, it is ultimately the most satisfying and memorable kind of trilogy.

In The Summer Tree, the first volume of the Tapestry, Kay introduces us to five Toronto students who are transported to the realm of Fionavar by the wizard Loren Silvercloak. They are brought there for a festival, but once in Fionavar, where the Unraveller Rakoth Maugrim has broken loose, they realize they will have a crucial part to play in the upcoming struggle of Light against Dark.

Thus baldly stated, this plot sounds like the synopsis of a hundred high fantasies, and this problem is compounded by Kay’s only real stumble — the awkward method of transportation he uses to get the students from our world to Fionavar. But I urge you to read past the first twenty pages or so, for that volume, and the work as a whole, improves at an astonishing rate, the further one reads.

In volume two, The Wandering Fire, Kay begins to weave the threads of Arthurian Matter into an already rich blend of Celtic, Teutonic, and Nordic sources. The cast of characters continues to grow, resulting in many shifting viewpoints and storylines — so many, that one wonders how Kay will manage to bring them all together for a satisfying conclusion.

But happily, in the final volume The Darkest Road, Kay achieves coherence. Each disparate thread is fit into its proper place with a consummate skill, so that happenstance becomes poetic structure and surprises are revealed to be fated. A dark undercurrent runs through all three volumes, yet for all it’s gloomy title, the third book is actually the most uplifting. The sense of hope derives not from any final defeat of the Dark, but from Kay’s delicate renderings of friendships, loves and the upholding of duties.

The Tapestry is a story related on a grand scale, and Kay’s prose is lyric and lean, grand in tone. His understanding of myths — not so much for what they say, but for the spirit that lies behind them — infuses his work with a singing resonance. I tend to be wary of overpraising, but Kay has delivered such a magnificent conclusion in this third volume, that I can’t praise it enough. The Fionavar Tapestry is a work that will be read and reread for many years to come. It is a book that makes one proud to be working in the same genre as its author.
— Charles de Lint

Matthew Winslow, for Green Man Review

It takes a lot to bring me to tears. I don’t cry often, but there are certain books that are written so wonderfully that they leave me an emotional mess for a few days after reading them.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry is one such series.

Prior to writing his first book, Kay was in the envious position of having helped edit J. R. R. Tolkien’s life work and magnum opus, The Silmarillion. The manuscript was left incomplete at Tolkien’s death and needed to be worked into a publishable format. The result was indeed the wondrous work that fans had been waiting for, filled with rich and beautiful language. By comparing The Silmarillion with Kay’s own works, one can see why Kay was an excellent choice for helping to smooth out the rough spots that were left in the incomplete manuscripts.

After The Silmarillion, Kay went on to write the trilogy of ‘high fantasy’ novels, The Fionavar Tapestry. In Fionavar we have not just a fully realized imaginary world, but a beautifully written addition to anyone’s list of ‘well-written high fantasy’ books.

The Fionavar Tapestry is a tale of travelers from our world to the world of Fionavar, which is the first world from which all other worlds emanate. In the first book, The Summer Tree, five college students from Toronto are carried over to Fionavar by a mage of Brennin for that country’s celebration of its monarch’s fiftieth year on the throne. Soon after their arrival, the Hi
gh Kingdom of Brennin finds itself having to prepare for war as the evil god Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller, breaks free of the bonds that have held him under the great mountain of Rangat. The travelers are caught up in the struggle to overcome Rakoth and come to realize that each of them has a special role to play in redeeming Fionavar from the evil it has fallen under.

The second book, The Wandering Fire, begins to weave the Arthurian mythos into the fate of Fionavar, as well as various other Celtic and Northern myths. As with most second books of a trilogy, The Wandering Fire focuses mostly on ‘lining up’ all the characters for the battles that are sure to come in the final book. That final book, The Darkest Road, tells of the confrontation of the forces of Light and Dark, and (of course) the triumph of Light over Dark.

But to summarize The Fionavar Tapestry just by its plot is similar to saying that The Lord of the Rings is about this short guy who wants to get rid of some jewelry left to him by his uncle, who is the neighborhood nutcase. It may be true, but it doesn’t really capture what the book is all about.

Some readers will immediately see the parallels to Tolkien — dwarves, elves, a high kingdom with its heir in exile, an evil power gaining ascendancy after many years, traitorous mages, a nation of horse riders … the list goes on — but these are similarities only because Kay is attempting to show how the high fantasy genre — which, in the mid 80s when Fionavar was written, had already been justifiably accused of being nothing but brain candy — can sustain writing that is not just fun and exciting, but also takes the reader beyond simple enjoyment to a meaningful experience. That is, The Fionavar Tapestry is an exercise in how high fantasy can also move one to tears.

And move you to tears it does. If I had to separate out a major theme of the book, I would say that it is about sacrifice. From beginning to end, Kay focuses on how the needs of the world are sometimes greater than the people that populate it, but that those people can rise above their human limitations and commit great deeds of sacrifice. With his usual skill, Kay creates a large cast of well-rounded and believable characters who, even though they live in a world the reader will never be a part of and commit deeds that the reader will never have to participate in, are nonetheless people about whom you care. Kay spends hundreds of pages taking you through his characters’ lives so that you care deeply and intensely for them, even if you’re not aware of it. But then, when the needs of the world loom large, the characters sacrifices themselves, not for personal glory, but for the greater good.

It is one such sacrifice, that occurs in the last 100 pages of the novel, that I have yet to find anyone able to withstand crying over. No, I’m not a softy — when my kids cut themselves bad enough to need stitches, I usually tell them not to bleed on my carpet — but I do appreciate a discussion of self-sacrifice that doesn’t resort to cliches. And The Fionavar Tapestry is one such discussion.

But that is not to say that this is a depressing book — not in the least. Kay, as someone familiar with Tolkien, is also familiar with Tolkien’s idea of eucatastrophe, the reverse of the catastrophe. The righting of the wrong, though, is often greater than any one character. In The Fionavar Tapestry, as in The Lord of the Rings and any other great fantasy novel, the eucatastrophe takes time to come about and the severity of the catastrophe also determines the severity of the price that must be paid to set things to rights again.

The Fionavar Tapestry, when all is said and done, is one of the most beautifully written and moving fantasy trilogies ever written. Those are very large words, but I truly believe this book is large enough to fit into such a reputation. At times I find myself growing weary of fantasy literature, since there is so much that is just plain dross, but at such times, I pull out my well-worn copy of The Fionavar Tapestry and am reminded why I read fantasy literature: the human spirit is greater than this world we live in. Guy Gavriel Kay reminds us of that.

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