Fionavar both benefits and suffers from its close association with the Lord of the Rings. That is unavoidable, since Guy Gavriel Kay helped Tolkien’s son collate and edit the “Simarillion” which was the dark, brooding prequel to LOTR. That compedium of tales chronicled the history of the First and second Ages of Middle Earth, in which the Noldor fought their centuries long war against Morgoth, the Great Enemy, until their utter defeat. Anyone who loves LOTR, of course, can spot the references a mile away, and indeed, Liquorature spent nearly two hours dissecting both the similarities to and departures from, Tolkien’s uber-saga that laid its own foundation stone in the genre.
The Fionavar Tapestry is indeed rooted solidly in traditional fantasy, mythical and legendary bedrock, but it also adds elements of the modern fantasy genre, Arthurian mythos and terrific emotional impact. I wouldn’t go so far as to say it all works: it does, however, succeed overall, and for that it deserves respect and admiration. It’s not easy to bring Arthur and Lancelot into a tale and not derail your entre story (and if you’re of a cynical and acerbic turn of mind as a reader, you’d probably poke as many holes into it as Liqourature did), yet Kay took a pass at it and – to my mind anyway – carried it off.
Five young students get transported to the “first world” – Fionavar – to partake in events to celebrate a king’s fiftieth year on the throne. All other worlds in all other times are in some way reflections of Fionavar, so whatever happens there, happens to a greater or lesser extent everywhere else. This echoes both Thomas Covenant and the Narnia series, and, like the protagonists in those series, they are swiftly drawn into a battle against evil. In this case evil is once again a great enemy, Rakoth Maugrim, who one might infer is akin to Morgoth, Lucifer or Lord Foul – a fallen angel, almost as powerful as the Creator, God, the Weaver, Prime Mover or what have you, and who is (critically) outside of time itself (shades of Lord Foul indeed). As is usual, confederations of peoples must be brought together to combat utter destruction and domination, and the interplay betwen the various major and minor characters gives the story its resonance.
It’s kind of pointless to delve into the plot of Fionavar, because it deals more with themes than actual plot points, and many actions that drive the plot are traditional. For example, we know the five will scatter across the World so as to provide us with glimpses of the various cultures; they will assist in forging alliances, precipitate events because of their prescence, and act as witnesses to great deeds and movements of the Age. We will meet nobles and commoners, tribesmen and town-dwellers, princes and soldiers and women and people who deal in either steel or magic. There will without doubt be a numinous object – several, in this case – legendary heroes brought to life, and, of course, a Great Battle. These are almost givens.
What to me sets Fionavar apart are two major elements of the story:
Firstly, there is the tragedy of the choices individuals must make in order to preserve their world, and those choices often have terrible repercussions on the chooser; there is an air of great sadness and pain throughout, as those decisions’ impacts become manifest. Yet there is also free will involved – witness what happens when Kim, the seer, chooses not to use the Baelrath’s wild magic to coerce the crystal dragon: she chooses for herself and the dwarves, but weaknes her own side in the Last Battle (nothing is free in Fionavar).
The second is the integration of the Arthurian mythos into the story…literally. The three main characters from Mallory make both appearances and major contribuitions. Arthur, condemned to forever be the hero called on in times of great need (Kay is deliberately channelling T.H. White here), yet forever cursed to share his love for Guinevere with his best friend, and forever cursed to die before the Last Battle; Lancelot, the greatest warrior in all the worlds in all the ages, and Guinevere, caught between two men she loves equally. Fortunately, Kay is sufficiently skilled a writer to not shift the emphasis to them entirely, but keeps them on the edges, where they exist and contribute, but do not overshadow everyone else.
Against the grand scale, overarching themes and brooding menace of the entire book, certain scenes stood out and were justly acclaimed by us all: Lancelot’s great battle in the wood; the chess game between Paul and the king; the way Diarmuid asked for Sharra’s hand in public via his Intercessor; the groaner concept of the elven lios alfar sailing into the west being redeemed in our eyes by the Soulmonger; the calling of Owein’s Hunt and having them just as cheerily slaughter the good guys as the bad; and the last battle where Diarmuid took matters into his own hands.
A book this large cannot entirely be a success, or escape its own shadow. The writing is occasionally hokey, repetitive, and Curt singled out the grammar and unwieldy construction for particularly harsh criticism. The tone shifts between mythic and everyday language too often and too jarringly. Characterization of the five is not strong, and Loren, the great sage and old wizard (I guess he’s supposed to be Merlin) is…well, he’s actually not terribly interesting. After looming over the whole long epic, Maugrim’s downfall (come on, you call that a spoiler?) is simply too brief, and here I draw attention to the climatic battle between Lord Foul and Covenant, or Lancelot and the wood demon: now there were epic confrontations. We feel shortchanged, as we did with LOTR, with how fast the bad guy just fades in this one. And why oh why must there always be elves, a ring, a wizard and northern climes….have we been that culturally injected with the Teutonic/Sandinavian mythos that we cannot get past this and think more out of the box?
I’d venture a guess that Kay was still honing his craft at the time Fionavar was being published. He showed a gift for great emotion, grand themes, epic scale, tangled plotlines and extensive foreshadowing. His later works, like “Sarantium” and “Lions of Al-Rassan” are more polished and assured, and while his style of grammatic construction remains, his stories gained more heft and grandeur, and continued hooking me ever since. He’s good, it’s as simple as that, and you’ll enjoy it if his kind of writing (which melds history and fantasy) works for you.
The mark of success of a novel of this kind rests almost totally on just a few points: originality and the ability to carve out its own territory; good writing; adherence to and departure from the conventions of fantasy; an enemy we can cheerfully loathe; great battles, tragedy, love and heroes we identify with not because they are perfect (how boring is that?) but because they are not…because, in other words, they are interesting, funny, and flawed. And also, the ability to create an entire world, a culture, a mindset, something so dense and detailed and rooted in “fact” that it takes on its own reality. There’s a reason LOTR is the gold standard, and its utterly convincing background is in large measure responsible.
By those standards, I’d say Fionavar rates a solid B+, and as I did to the club, I’d unhesitatingly recommend it to all who want to get something different from Robert Jordan, Dave Eddings, Robin Hobbs, Dragonlance, Shanarra, the Land or Middle Earth.