The Summer Tree was my first foray into Guy Gavriel Kay’s pantheon and let me tell you, I’m officially a fan. Based on Kay’s presence on The Quill To Live’s Recommendations page, I knew enough to expect something special. I was not prepared for the assault on my heartstrings or the pure fantastical wonder that blossomed while reading this high fantasy tale.
While attending a seemingly innocuous lecture, five university students are set on a course to fulfill their destiny in another land, in another time. A wizard and a dwarf from Fionavar, the first world, have come to Earth in search of five individuals to take part in the celebration of their king’s 50-year reign. The magical duo intercepts Dave, Kim, Kevin, Paul, and Jennifer and transports the group to Fionavar, where they become an integral thread in the Weaver’s storytelling tapestry. The individuals find themselves woven into the power struggle of a royal court, and the whims of gods and goddesses while a dark force accumulates in the north. It seems the group from Earth has an important role to play in this foreign world, and its survival may very well depend on their success.
The Summer Tree was difficult for me to read at first. The world is incredibly vast, with a complex history and lore that frames the beliefs held by the people of Fionavar. I found myself entangled in the past and present of not only this magical world but the five individuals who are thrown into the mix. It is overwhelming, and Kay’s writing style tripped me up at first, but it is now something I cherish with my whole being. The storytelling is magically and mysteriously delicious. The book tells of the Weaver, a powerful force that sits at the loom of all worlds and threads the fates together. Characters hold their breath and time slows in anticipation of a thread falling into place. Kay is very much like the Weaver hailed in The Summer Tree. I blindly followed the threads of the five individuals until their fate was determined by Kay. It’s a slow burn but damn if it isn’t worth every confusing moment I endured.
Kay is truly a master storyteller. I decided this as tears welled in my eyes for a character I BARELY knew. How I came to know the five main characters so intimately with minimal time and space dedicated to their development is beyond me. I’ve read books twice as long as The Summer Tree without an ounce of feeling. Yet Kay forms deep connections between you and his characters with little effort in a story almost completely driven by plot. I am astounded by the love I developed for both main and secondary characters against a backdrop of intense worldbuilding and intriguing plot. You would think one element must surely be sacrificed for the good of the others, but Kay manages to pull off all three with devastating effects.
There are classic fantasy themes aplenty within the book, but what is truly beautiful is the concept of destiny as seen through the individual journeys of Dave, Kim, Kevin, Paul, and Jennifer. The problems of their modern life spill over into Fionavar, and each character confronts their inner selves within the legendary setting. The destinies are met with deep sadness, fierce determination, and dignified resolve with each character stepping outside the safety of the group to follow their own thread.
The Summer Tree has weathered the many seasons that have passed since it was first published in 1984. Besides one questionable reference that Kevin seems to favor at the beginning of the book, this is a story that has held up quite well in its almost 40 years of existence. Despite my slow start, I was enraptured by the end and will be well on my way to devouring the rest of The Fionavar Tapestry series.
Rating: The Summer Tree – 9.0/10