This is a fantasy trilogy where Guy Gavriel Kay made a knowing and deliberate decision to emulate J.R.R. Tolkien. Perhaps this was to be expected after Kay spent a considerable time helping Christopher Tolkien (J.R.R.’s son) edit The Silmarillion, but he himself has explained (in numerous interviews) that this series was undertaken to prove that “High Fantasy” was complex enough to spawn many original stories, and that inferior Tolkien imitators need not become the norm for the genre. Whether Kay completely succeeded in this endeavor can be debated, but The Fionavar Tapestry is definitely a trilogy well worthy of its Lord of the Rings comparisons.
In The Summer Tree, the story begins with five college students from Toronto being transported to Fionavar (the first world that all others emulate) by Loren Silvercloak. This other worldly mage is a kindly man, who assures the frantic five that he is merely “borrowing” them for a short while so they can be guests of the royal court for a celebration of the fiftieth anniversary of the king’s ascension to the throne, but that he has ever intention of immediately returning them to their homes. Soon after their arrival in the Kingdom of Brennin, however, things begin to turn sour when the evil god Rakoth Maugrim, the Unraveller, escapes from his imprisonment under the great mountain of Rangat. Our unwary travelers then find themselves trapped in the struggle to overcome Rakoth, slowly realizing that each of them will have some special role to play in saving Fionavar.
The second book, The Wandering Fire, is a standard middle of a trilogy tale, in that it focuses on aligning all the good and evil characters up for an epic confrontation in the final volume of the series. But Kay also finds time to do something else here: integrate real world myths into the fantasy narrative. These run the gamut from the very prominent Arthurian legend of Arthur, Lancelot, and Guinevere to the less well-known tidbits of Celtic and Northern mythos.
In The Darkest Road, Kay brings the “High Fantasy” tale to a close with the inevitable final battle between the forces of Good and Evil, the end of the quest for the mountain, and the decision of the hero who holds the fate of all in his hands. As familiar and simplistic as that might seem, Kay fills the narrative to the brim with dark broodiness, fertile hope, and an “eucatastrophe” that is deeply moving to read and wraps up all the characters’ storylines.
Now, as I alluded to earlier, The Fionavar Tapestry is very similar to Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. There are dwarves, elves, a nation of horsemen, an ancient god-like villain once cast down but now returned, traitorous mages, the heir to a powerful kingdom in exile who has now returned, and the quest of someone to the evil mountain itself. (I’ve only named the most prominent examples; there are actually many more.) And, at its core, the series is very much a Tolkien-like chronicle of the battle between Good and Evil with little suspense as to which side each character will ultimately align with. So if you are one of those readers who views Tolkien-like fantasy as “brain candy” with no redeeming value, then I doubt you will like this trilogy very much . . . but there is still a chance you might.
The reason why is that, in The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay has delivered a deeply moving, richly imaginary world, crafted with some of the most lyrical prose ever to grace a fantasy page. The work is grand in scope, deep in emotions, brimming with detailed characters, and crystallizes quickly into something hauntingly beautiful.
None of which means you are guaranteed to love it. Everyone’s tastes are quite different. However, I would encourage naysayers to take a leap of faith, pick this series up at the used books store or on Amazon or wherever, and sit down with an open mind about what emotions “High Fantasy” can still invoke. I realize that the Tolkien clones have ruined this sub-genre to a certain extent, but it is still a powerful medium that a master storyteller can mine for powerful themes and emotional reactions – and Guy Gavriel Kay is definitely a master.