My wife likes to tell the story about a fantasy story she wrote as a child, which while writing she thought to be very good, but on finishing realized was really just a bad rehash of Lord of the Rings. We’ve all been there, I suppose, even if our derivative creations never make it out of our daydreams and into some forsaken spiral-bound notebook. I would honestly be alarmed by the individual whose mind rejected the influence of a good story and did not in some allow such a thing to manifest in their creative or moral imagination.
My preamble is not to say that Guy Gavriel Kay’s 1984 fantasy adventure The Summer Tree, which he wrote after assisting Christopher Tolkien in compiling The Silmarillion, is a knock-off bit of Tolkien fan-fiction. Yes, there is a mysterious mage who summons an unheroic group of friends to a heroic journey. Sure, there’s an immortal race of beautiful people who sometimes set sail to the western horizon to a land where no mortal may tread. Yes, there are dwarves who are quite good at crafting magical doodads, a nomadic allied horse people, an ancient forest with a mind of its own, and an undying dark lord banished a thousand years past but works to return and conquer the world that defeated him. There is much that sounds familiar. Oh! And there’s a hidden wandering heir to the central human kingdom that holds the fell powers in check. We can’t forget about Ara…Aileron.
Still, I can’t knock the book for that. In fact, it’s the weaving of a high fantasy adventure told in a lush epic register that provide all the high points of the novel. The dramatic battle between a wicked, demonic wolf and a mysterious but noble hound is particularly memorable (if more than a little reminiscent of a certain tale from The Silmarillion), written in grand and soaring style. The histories and legends of Fionvar, as related by the narrator and the book’s cornucopia of a character roster, thrill and delight in a manner that is, if not on the level of Tolkien, satisfactorily Tolkienesque.
In fact, the problems I found with the book derived largely from Kay’s deviations and innovations. I suggested above the novel begins like Fellowship of the Ring, with the Hobbits of the Shire dispatched by Gandalf on a quest to destroy the ring, but that was some misleading humor. Here, our instigating mage elects five graduate students from the University of Toronto in our world to (ostensibly) attend a very big party in his world as guests of honor. While not unlikable, the central five felt more appropriate to a standard modern thriller rather than a high fantasy novel, feeling roughly cut from thin cliches. The Pevensie children were also strangers to the world they visited, but they were a harmonious pairing for the story Lewis told. The longer I think about it, the less I am sure why the novel needed these characters at all.
There are some other issues as well. A couple sections inside the heads of the main characters should have been eviscerated by an editor with any sympathy for the reader. There’s a lot of unnecessary sex in the book, including some weird sexual assault via magic, and like the vast majority of erotic forays in popular literature they are more goofy than anything else. The tonal mismatches can be jarring to the point of damaging the fabric of the whole, especially one major offender near the end, when (I am not making this up) the narrative leaps from a main character being tortured by means of dark magic with psychic (and probably physical) rape to a slapstick comedy scene where a drunk womanizer gets water thrown in his face by two ladies, who, we told, proceed to giggling. It’s those moments in particular that reminded me the book was written by a nerd in his twenties.
The book also ends just when things come to a head. I recognize this is a standard trope and we ought to simply expect it these days, but I stubbornly refuse to do so. Feel free to leave mysteries unsolved and fates untold for later books, but I’d like a whole story in my story, please. Fellowship of the Ring ended midway the battle at the Falls of Rauros, but the book wasn’t meant to be separate from The Two Towers; that “trilogy” was a unified whole, and the reader was intended to flip from the breaking of the fellowship to Aragorn’s discovery of Boromir without having to take a trip over to the bookstore.
That said, I still bought the second book after I finished. That’s not a common thing. I am typically unforgiving of series with wobbly first entries. However, I picked up The Summer Tree based on an itch to read something Tolkien-y and some very strong recommendations of Guy Gavriel Kay’s later history-based fantasy novels, and I can see how the young man who wrote this could grow into an impressive storyteller in his own right. I do plan to read Book 2 of the series, even with my misgivings of the first, and I definitely plan to read Kay’s more recent and highly acclaimed works.