The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I'm of two minds with this work. I think I'd rather give this one a 3.5 on sheer enjoyability, having the reaction that I'd read this all before, and it's pacing was slow, slow, slow, but after having read it and having some thoughts as to what Kay was trying to accomplish, I'm revising it up to a solid 4.
There is a lot to love in this novel, but unfortunately, it takes a long time for it to develop and ripen. Right off the bat, I noticed that this was taking an old trick that so much Fantasy (and much SF) seems almost "Required", coming from the late seventies and eighties. I'm referring to the need to pull ordinary people from our modern world and putting them dab square in a Fantasy. (I'm looking at you, Donaldson and Zelazny.)
I don't like it. I never really have. The character's lives are usually unremarkable in the real world and using them as a hook in a Fish-Out-Of-Water tale tends to get very old, very quickly. Too much time is spent acclimating the reader into either a rich tapestry of mythos and worldbuilding, or a flat and slow slog through old themes done YET AGAIN.
This one starts out that way, and I groaned. I truly don't mind being thrown head first into a rich tapestry without any foreplay, and that is what I love most about modern Fantasy titles. I call it respect for the reader. Drawing out a tale to poke the butterflies and unicorns or to see how grand the King and Kingdom is as a modern yokel just bores the living shit out of me. That being said, this novel wasn't too bad. It was slow and the general pacing could have been much improved, whether by actual plot or just the illusion of things happening, but once I got over that, I discovered that the whole book was nothing more than a novel about character discovery. There's a good deal of Tolkeinish things going on, including names and events we aren't privy to yet, and may never be. We've got standard Fantasy tropes everywhere we look. It's not really about that. It's about the character growth.
Something big does happen, but it's more of a prelude to the rest of the novels.
What really struck me as Important in this read was the language that Kay used. I'm not referring to dialogue. The dialogue was functional. No, I'm referring to the placement of words, the economy, and the sheer beauty of what was being conveyed. If I wanted a rip-roaring fantasy tale, I came to the wrong place. If I wanted beautifully written prose, minus the dialogue, then I definitely hit the lottery. I got into the book by this door, and it continued to surprise and amaze. The characters who first started pretty flat began showing grand definition by way of their actions. They grew. Some of them grew a lot. Others just grew more powerful.
There weren't any glowing light shows or epic battles, save for a few economical scenes that were positively Spartan or even Hemingway in their brevity, and I might have taken umbrage at that, because I like exciting scenes, but they were written pretty and evocative, if short, and they were good enough that I couldn't help being extremely impressed.
It took a long time to get into this novel, but I'll give it this: Once I did get going, I was good to go. I'm now in a state of mind that I could keep going with this tale forever.
It reminds me of later works that are so huge (I'm looking at you, WoT) that it takes 4-5 books before we start to even LIKE a particular character, or get impressed with how much he's developed.
It's a DAMN GOOD THING that this is a trilogy, or I'd probably throw it at someone. (I'm looking at you, Kay.)
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