GGK Book Club: The Summer Tree, ch 1-4

The Summer Tree, Guy Gavriel Kay

The Summer Tree, Guy Gavriel Kay Welcome to the GGK Book Club!

We’ll be reading the whole of GGK’s works in publication order over the course of the year. January’s novel is THE SUMMER TREE, first of the Fionavar Tapestry, and since it’s a tidy 16 chapters, we’ll be reading (or at least discussing) 4 chapters from TST every week.

A comment from me as the moderator/organizer of this project: GGK does not work for everybody as a reader. In fact, he seems to either really work or really not, so if you’re coming to these books fresh and find that it’s a god-awful slog, possibly GGK is not a writer for you. It’s totally okay with me if you want to slog and talk about what doesn’t work and why–that would be interesting and enlightening–but I would like to keep this to reasoned discussion, not spitting on one another for different tastes, so basically, behave nicely in discussions, please, or I’ll land on you like an elephant. I said sweetly. :)

Spoilers exist behind the cut, although since this is just the first few chapters, which is almost entirely introduction and set-up, if you haven’t read yet and want to peek at the commentary, I think you won’t be burning yourself too badly.

Now, this (like all of these will be, save RIVER OF STARS) is a re-read for me, which means I’m coming in not with fresh impressions but a kind of combination of new and old, which will of course color my commentary. But I thought I’d make note of some things that struck me, particularly here early in the story where everybody’s just getting set up.

First off, as far as I know, these books are what GGK wrote once he was finished helping the Tolkien estate gather and complete JRRT’s works. It is not, therefore, a surprise that they’re heavily Tolkien-influenced, although unlike Tolkien, I found them readable when I encountered them, so they were always off on the right foot for me. The Tolkienesque aspects, though, have been known to get up people’s noses. It might be of more use as a practice in these discussions to do a compare and contrast rather than squeal indignantly, if you’re one of those who doesn’t like the Tolkienesqueness.

Honestly, the first thing I noticed is that once we’re beyond the (mercifully brief) Overture (which isn’t awful, as prologues go, primarily because it *is* brief, but gosh, it does smack of this feeling that This Is How Tolkien Did It, So This Is How It Must Be Done)–right, let me go back to the beginning of that sentence:

Once we’re beyond the Overture, the first thing I noticed is that the first two named characters are women. I seriously doubt I noticed that in my original readings, but as a grup who knows GGK *was* coming off working with Tolkien’s manuscripts, I found that a breath of fresh air.

The third named character is the one I remember the story starting with, Dave (and in fact, he really is where it starts). I remember incidents about most of the characters, but I’m not sure I’d have necessarily remembered all their names (although having started re-reading, how could I have forgotten any of them!).

I don’t remember thinking it in so many words back in the day, but jeez, these characters all have Issues. As an adult the Character Tragedies might be a bit, er, heavy-handed, in fact, to the reader, although for me the words still carry me along and draw me into their stories pretty well without hesitation.

I’d forgotten Diarmuid, whom I love, was introduced so early, and … gosh. He’s still charming and everything, but his interplay with Jennifer upon meeting her is a lot creepier than I remember it being. I’m sure this has to do with being *much* more aware, as an adult, of the prevalance of rape and abuse, and much more sensitive to behaviours that come across as, well, creepy.

OTOH, serious props to Jennifer for smacking him down for overstepping her boundaries.

Ah, I remember the phrase “brightly woven” as something to indicate delight, and how much I liked that. It was one of those I wanted to work into my regular conversations, but it never stuck.

With the writer hat on, there are a couple of fragmented sentences that I would’ve edited, but mostly, the language still sings to me. Structurally, well, this is all set-up–but in four chapters we get quite a lot of information about just *how* all these people are broken, and therefore some sense of how they’re going to have to heal.

As it happens, I actually stopped reading tonight at the end of chapter four, which is a slightly AUGH moment, because Paul sees the wolf for the first time, and that brought his whole storyline back to me. I think at this stage I remember what happens with everyone, even though they’re only just set up.

I feel like I’m talking around the plot a lot here, but it’s *so* early in the book(s), and I *do* know what happens next, so I don’t want to go overboard the other direction. I’m sure I’ll get better at this as we go on. :)

Talk to me! What were your thoughts and impressions? Is this your first reading of the Fionavar Tapestry, or is it an old friend? Who do you like, who makes you twitch, what makes you curious?

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4 thoughts on “GGK Book Club: The Summer Tree, ch 1-4

  1. I first read the Fionavar Tapestry when I was about 10; sometime between third and seventh grade, at least, and at the time it didn’t click for me. In fact, the only two things I remembered about it were the “prime creation, which all the others imperfectly reflect” and another item to be discussed later when we reach the appropriate chapter.

    Unfortunately, I was already familiar with Amber, so the Fionavar Tapestry was immediately set up against stiff competition.

    What strikes me in this first re-read is that it’s unsurprising I was unimpressed earlier, not because I’m not enjoying it now (I am) but because of the presentation. I’m not a writer, but the way I’d describe this work is a sketching of events through which the characters move. It seems to hint far more often than it shows, and elide as much as it hints.

    As a kid I definitely did not “get” the characters; I lacked the context to get inside their heads, which is where the real action seems to be taking place. Frankly, I still lack commonality, but at least I’ve got a bit better understanding of theory of mind to help out. When I started, I was afraid at first it was going to be the same again, until the scene where Kevin comes home to his Abba, which I really dug.

    I still find their reactions to be very strange; convenient for keeping the plot going, but not what I would expect. Some examples – when Paul notices the svart alfar following them on Earth, rather than assuming it’s either a dedicated fan after an autograph, or another late-night campus stroller, he questions Matt on the reason they’re being followed; when Matt drops back, Paul doesn’t question him or Loren on the “abruptly truncated cry” but rather on why the follower was back there. I’d definitely be creeped out far more by the idea that the guys whose suite I’m sharing are assaulting people in the woods behind the museum than I would by strangers behind me on the same woodland path. When they’re later told it was dead, we only see a reaction from Jennifer, who seems quite properly discomfited. Likewise, the token skeptic is more angry than skeptical, the vision of Paras Derval is taken at face value, rather than “the guy who says he’s a wizard may have just dosed me with acid” or, potentially as scary “the wizard can hijack my senses seemingly at will and *what else is he capable of*?” Ironically I’d have been more likely to have shown up for the Crossing if I thought he was just a nutter. (This likely explains why wizards have never asked me to travel to other worlds, and my life is the poorer for it.) I’ll touch on similar things later.

    Also, in line with my description of ‘sketchings’ I think the only things we actually see them pack for the two-week trip are Kevin’s guitar and the Evidence notes

    As a kid, I would not have minded if it had been even *more* Tolkein-y; when I first read it, I’d been re-reading Tolkien for years; I think that was the only actual fantasy I’d read (almost all my other fiction was sci-fi).

    What strikes me now is that Fionavar seems very small and very young. The imprisoning a thousand years ago is roughly contemporaneous with the Battle of Hastings, which, true, was a long time ago – but as of yet there’s no Rome, no Babylon, no Stonehenge or Ur of the Chaldees reaching back into the mists of dawn. I won’t get into the physical scale for a couple chapters.

    I definitely felt Diarmuid came on too strong. Understandable given the situation, but yeah, creepy.

    All of this may sound like I’m not enjoying it, which is the furthest thing from the truth. In actuality I burned through about 200 pages without stopping, or even noticing the chapter breaks. I had to go back through this evening to find where those were to figure out how much I could talk about.

    At this point, I think I’m mostly empathizing with Dave and Kevin, although I’m hoping we get to see where the line about patronization way back in the beginning was coming from. Jennifer, who got a big negative check in my book when she asks Loren to explain what he means about coming from another world “because I’m frightened now” earns some respect back in the Diarmuid scene.

    Sorry if this was rather overlong. It’s been a long day and I needed to decompress.

  2. I have read this trilogy, oh, once or twice. Not for a few years, though.

    I noticed that the three guys get to leave that initial meeting and have lives and character development, while the women wander off to completely undescribed homes, which was interesting, I am curious to see how my 2014 self reacts to gender issues going forward.

    It’s weird reading traditional fantasy from Kay now. Maugrim. Wizards. It’s not at all subtle, no. On the other hand, I know he’s going to use some of those tropes as pivot points later on, so that’s very interesting. It must have been a relief to write this in some ways.

  3. I forced myself to stop at the end of chapter 4 -GKK writing was as compelling as I remember. On this reread I still empathised with Dave as the outsider, says something about how I felt growing up! GKK skill lies in giving just enough back story for character development whilst allowing the reader latitude to fill in gaps.

    I not sure what I would do if confronted by a wizard but probably would ask a whole lot more questions now, however when I first read the books in the late 80s I would have happily trotted off to Finovar! Diarmuid is a charismatic character but leaning heavily towards sleazy with Jennifer – definitely right for her to give him a slap.
    Apologies if this slightly incoherent its the end of a tough day! Looking forward to reading the next four chapters and everyone’s posts.

  4. Trying to catch up since I started a bit late. I’ve read the Fionavar Tapestry previously, but none of GGK’s other books. I bought many of them in a fit of author completionism, so this is also a reason for me to get to reading the ones I haven’t yet.

    But first, revisiting Fionavar. The first time, I picked it up in a bookstore out of curiosity and started reading the first chapter, then decided I needed to have this book now. It still holds up fairly well; I feel like “Earth people are transported to another world” stories weren’t as common back then, so the characters being more struck with wonder than suspicion (and not having genre savvy-ness) seem right to me.

    I’m liking Kevin more than I remember. It’s possible that he does something later that gets on my nerves, but I think it’s both that I empathized a greater amount with Dave when I first read the book and I’ve subsequently befriended a number of extroverts, so I understand how an extroverted friend would be trying to help. Similarly, I’m a bit more annoyed with Dave, but only a bit – start having doubts *before* the magical casting is nearly completed, man! Freaking out most of the way through does not help!

    A good point about how the male characters receive more description of their home lives than the female characters. I’ll have to see how that bears out going forward.

    Oh, Diarmuid… I’m pretty sure I get to liking you later, but right now I really want to punch you.

    Also, I am amused by the geographical infodump. In the context of the story, it works, and sets up important things for Kim and Paul, but it is still very much an infodump.

    I remember what ultimately happens to all of the characters, but have forgotten much of what comes in between, so leaving off at Paul and the dog is extra-intriguing.

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