I posted a review of The Summer Tree back in last year’s Wyrd & Wonder, which I regret as I do not think I did the book justice, but don’t quite regret enough to redo the review. Not yet anyway. I do though hope to perhaps give a bit more of the esteem earned by the series with this review of book two of The Fionavar Tapestry, The Wandering Fire. And as such there will be a few spoilers here further down the page, for both the first book and this one.
But it is hard. It has taken me two attempts to find the right thread for this review (this is the third) because how do I encapsulate such a wild, glorious, tragic ride? How do I best sell a book that is completely over the top and yet grounded enough to work.
The word that describes The Wandering Fire best I think is gallant. It is suffused with a worldview that is a mix of romantic and realistic, one that believes in grand gestures and dauntless courage – and that the cost of a fight is pain, and that all choices come with curses as well as blessings, and that the power of darkness and evil is very powerful indeed. Maybe no book, no series, that believes in the battle of good vs evil puts its characters through the wringer more thoroughly. It is not so much that they have difficult choices, a maze of subtlety to wander through, as it is their choices hurt.
Despite this, despite Kay being the only author who reliably puts tears in my eyes, this book is far from a miserable read and not just because of said grand gestures and gallant bravery.
Kay’s characters hum with human energy as well as mythic resonance. They have their layers, their little quirks, their frequent laughter and above all, plausibility and charisma. In The Summer Tree, I enjoyed Paul’s and Dave’s arcs most. Here, the girls come into their own. Kim’s mix of transcendent power and wry inner irony is a winning combination, and her status as Seer gives her many of the book’s most awesome and poignant moments. It is perhaps deliberate that Kay gave arguably the most human character what is arguably the most inhuman power.
Jennifer’s arc is something else though. At the end of The Summer Tree, she is the victim of one of the most harrowing rapes in the entire damn genre. In The Wandering Fire, she carries the child of that rape to term and, well, lives with surviving. More over, since she carries the child of the dark lord, Rakoth, she has to put up with a lot of advice and interference on what should happen with her child. Her arc – and that of the child, Darien – is still building towards the final book, but it is powerful here.
The decision to bring Arthur into the story and reveal that Jennifer is Guinevere is one I’ve always had mixed feelings on. This time round in the re-read I’m mostly down with it, and love seeing a myth brought to life and the effects it has on everyone. I think it’s a canny choice given how much of the book is about myth. Jennifer didn’t need to be Guinevere though. She had more than enough meaning as is. Yet – being Guinevere doesn’t diminish that meaning.
The final character of the five, Kevin, remains maybe the most interesting. And his tale here is… well, it’s impossible to tell without total spoilers, but I think it embodies the gallantry, the bittersweet balance of dark and romanticism in this book.
I still don’t think I’ve done a good job with this review to be honest. But sometimes, a writer needs to accept they’ve done their best and move on, which I will after a few (long) last remarks. What makes The Wandering Fire and The Fionavar Tapestry so difficult to write about is how full they are. To use a food metaphor, we all have those foods where the flavours are so intense and rich that we don’t care for them. Spicy food for some, cheese for me. Well, that’s where this book is. It’s intense, in almost every regard. The moments of laughter over simple things, of mundanity and friendship bring much needed relief every now and again, but they are the smallest palate cleanser before we plunge headlong into Kay’s High Fantasy again.
Part of me struggles to recommend the book because of that, knowing it is a situation where many will bounce off. Would I change a thing about that intensity though? No. It works nigh perfectly for me, and the way it fits into a little segment of my tastes only grows more pronounced over the years. The Fionavar Tapestry doesn’t reward those stopping to look at the logistics, or reading with a slight sense of detachment. But if you’re buying what Kay is selling – flights of purple prose, deliberately archaic feeling, and all – then there’s not a lot like it.
And while some middle books are the worst of their series, this one is the best of it. The Summer Tree was the tale of five students thrust into a world that isn’t their own and in doing so finding out who they truly are. In The Wandering Fire, we see the choices they will make to defend it – and writing about choices and their consequences is what Kay does best.
And maybe making you mist up a little as a result.