The Fionavar Tapestry #2: The Wandering Fire by Guy Gavriel Kay

Read: 2 July, 2016

The adventure continues for our little band of Canadians in Fionavar. When we last left our heroes, they had escaped from Fionavar in order to save Jennifer, then a captive of the generic Dark Lord. Now, they must find a way back in time to save the world where their lives have, finally, become interesting.

Every time I mention to a fantasy fan that I’m reading the Fionavar Tapestry, I get some variation of, “Isn’t Kay just wonderful?” And… I’m just not seeing it. It’s fine, but it’s certainly not great. There are a lot of ideas, but they don’t connect with each other well (the tapestry imagery, for example, is lovely, but it has little impact on the story).

The tone of the writing takes itself far too seriously. It’s going for Tolkienistic heroic myths, but it never comes down from there. Tolkien was able to make it work by more authentically following the mythic form (which includes down time and a bit of humour). The language is at least more consistent now (I had complained that the first book keeps bounding back and forth between modern speech and Ye Olde Heroic Speeche), but it’s done that by making it all bland Ye Olde Heroic Speeche.

There characters seem rather interchangeable. They each have a function, but that seems to be as deep as their individuality goes. Every single one of them is heroic, self-sacrificing, stoic, etc.

Which brings me to the problem with every character being self-sacrificing. They all stumble over each other in their rush to be the one to die for the cause, but Kay is clearly worrying about running out of characters. So as each takes their turn to die heroically, they are swiftly spared by some godly intervention or brand new rule that allows them to be resurrected. By the time we got to an actual death that appears to have stuck, I wasn’t able to care. As it was happening, I assumed that he’ll be resurrected anyway so why does it matter? When the book ends and the character remains dead, the moment has passed and it’s too late for me to feel the weight of the sacrifice.

Though it was established in The Summer Tree that all worlds connect and that Fionavar is an archetype, it didn’t really mean much. Here, Kay introduces King Arthur, who is resurrected in our world and brought to Fionavar where he is known by all. Finally, the idea that all the worlds are connected has some meaning!

Except that it lacked verisimilitude. Where does the history diverge between worlds? Why is Arthur’s true name Arthur, and known as such in Fionavar, when there’s no precedent for Germanic names there? It’s also clear that Jennifer is Guinevere reborn, which dooms here to repeat the Arthurian tragedy, but Arthur is his old self resurrected. The pattern is already broken, so there’s no reason to think that they would be compelled to repeat the pattern. Wouldn’t it make more sense to have an Arthur reborn in Canada, who then conflicts with the Arthur resurrected? Kay has a lot of interesting proto-ideas that he throws into the series, but they rarely feel thought through.

My final complaint is rather unfair: Nearly everything I like in this series was later done a little better with Wheel of Time.

Speaking of which, I’m noticing more and more similarities: The horn that wakes sleeping warriors? The mistrusted society of magic-using women (who are resentful of men in general, and particularly men who use magic)? The tapestry imagery? The people who are reborn versions of ancient people? The trapped Dark Lord who breaks free and wants to destroy all reality (not just this world, but all worlds)? But here, the ideas are hodge-podge. They don’t build on each other to form a cohesive reality. Instead, they all just… coexist. For all his flaws, Jordan did do a much better job in tying them together.

I have one book left, and I’ll read it because I’m a completionist. But I have to say that, so far, I am not impressed. For all the rave reviews this series has gotten (though I did get a few Kay fans to admit that Fionavar is “not his best work), I’m disappointed. There are a lot of interesting ideas, and I could see how they could spark the imagination for someone who hasn’t encountered them elsewhere already, but the series does not hold up.

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More from The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy:

  1. The Summer Tree
  2. The Wandering Fire
  3. The Darkest Road

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