C.S. Lewis’ Narnia and J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth are two of the great high fantasy settings of all time. Known by most Western readers even outside the genre, the books play a large role in helping define what high fantasy is—a chicken and egg thing. Looking to combine the look and feel evoked by those worlds and stories is Guy Gavriel Kay in his debut novel, and first in the Fionavar trilogy, The Summer Tree (1986).
What Farah Medelsohn would classify as portal fantasy, The Summer Tree begins in our world but soon enough moves to a world in another dimension, Fionavar. The portal not a clothes closet a la Narnia, it is instead a magical transportation performed by high mage Loren Silvercloak. Known to people on Earth as Professor Lorenzo Marcus, it’s in a Canadian academic setting he convinces five people to travel with him back to Fionavar to celebrate the 50th anniversary of his king’s rule. The group transported to Fionavar with only a minor hiccough, they discover a kingdom in despair. The ruling king refusing to sacrifice himself at the summer tree, a new era of fertile lands and good weather lies in waiting. Seers, mages, dwarves, and elves coming out Fionavar’s woodwork as the group gets into the dire situation, bringing stability back to the land proves an adventuresome task, even as their own potentials are unleashed.
The Summer Tree is instantly recognizable as high fantasy. The court drama, the world's lore, the faceless evil haunting the fringes, the subtle working of mages and sorceresses, the elves and dwarves—anybody with an inkling of knowledge about fantasy would instantly recognize the book as such. While Kay did not have the competition in the 80s that writers of fantasy have today, he nevertheless has the need of distinguishing himself from the crowd. Highs and low of drama, surprising turns of event, fanciful characterization and layered emotions, numinous objects—these are the methods deployed to achieve uniqueness.
But it’s largely the richness of language which distinguishes the book. Generally evocative and beautiful, Kay does an excellent job of conjuring Fionovar through ‘high fantasy’ diction in a way that few writers today do. The characters act and speak with a sense of prose appropriate to classic epic fantasy (even as modern ‘sensibilities’ are occasionally thrown in for good measure, i.e. semi-graphic violence and sex). That being said, there are times the diction puffs itself up to purple proportions. More than once I rolled my eyes at a particularly maudlin line. For readers who like rich elegance, the book will be a treat. For those who prefer a more “modern”, straightforward authorial voice, this may be a bit bloated.
In the end, readers looking for a classic, high fantasy reading experience written in rich, elegant prose would do well to seek out The Summer Tree. First volume in a trilogy, however, be warned there are two additional volumes which complete the tale. Kay effortlessly building his world in a paucity of pages, the story flies by in this stage-setting first volume. Just be wary of the tone; like too much sugar, it can make the teeth hurt after a while...