readalong · Wyrd And Wonder

The Summer Tree Read-Along: Week One

It’s time for my favourite part of Wyrd and Wonder: the readalong! This year, though, there are two(!) and I, of course, decided to add to my great reading list and take part in both! If you want to join in you can see the weekly discussion questions on our twitter communities where we also have some fun informal discussion going on! Today I’m looking at the first week of The Summer Tree by Guy Gavriel Kay (Overture to Chapter Six), which I was very excited to pick up, not least because of the stunning cover of the edition I have:

This is my first Guy Gavriel Kay book, and after years of seeing A Brightness Long Ago on the shelf of my local bookshop (and place of employment) I am glad to finally have an excuse to pick up one of his novels. So let’s dive in to week one’s thoughts!

This is a week-by-week readalong and the discussion posts will contain spoilers.

The prose style is as distinctive as calling the prologue an overture. How are you finding it?

It is certainly distinctive! And I enjoyed the overture a lot with its sweeping narrative. Very familiar to fantasy fans too, and it did recall the opening to the Fellowship of the Ring film with the image of armies from all nations lining up to face the dark lord… one can’t fault that, though, because it’s a great trope, though I do want to know more about the build up to it all.

It was quite jarring to go from that to a university lecture in Toronto, and maybe Kay thought so too because it’s another jarringly fast transition back to Fionavar. I think if the overture had been a little later in the story it would have been less weird to start in our world and then discover this magical universe. Then there would be more mystery for the reader as well as the five adventurers, and perhaps more wonder at the discovery.

Okay I want off topic briefly… back to the prose! I am a massive fan of lyrical and sometimes opulent writing (or purple prose as my esteemed co-readers have pointed out), but I have found so far in this book it isn’t capturing my heart as much as I would like it to because the information we get alongside it is just too little. It’s like the narrator is so omniscient that it assumes I know more than I do, especially when it comes to the inner workings of the characters. It just feels a little two dimensional and so the grandness of the prose is belittled. As I’ve already mentioned, there are a lot of echoes of Tolkien here, but while Tolkien’s prose was often lyrical and epic, it never feels forced or out of place. GGK alludes to a lot, and I think that works well in the context of the secondary world, where we get hints of Fionavar’s history and deities, but when it comes to our main characters who we’re supposed to be invested in there can’t just be hints. We need to know who they are and not just because some narrator said ‘this is what they’re like.’ And speaking of our main characters…

Each visitor gets a little moment to define them before they arrive in Fionavar. What are your first impressions of our travellers? Any you particularly like or dislike?

Okay, first of all I have to say this and get it out of my system: I know that these are people from our world, but because this is a fantasy book I cannot quite reconcile the character’s names with the rest of the setting. But I suppose it would be weirder if these ordinary people had fantasy names… at least so far Paul has been referred to as Pwyll while in Fionavar so that makes it less jarring. But as I said above, the time before the trip to Fionavar is shockingly short. I have a hint of who these characters might be (well, mostly the men), but I don’t know why any of them except David were at “Lorenzo’s” lecture and why they were all so quick to believe in a fantastical world. I mean, personally, if I were in that situation I would love to believe it but it would take something more to convince me.

First impressions, though: David is the one I’m most intrigued by because he’s the first person we meet and he obviously has a lot going on. Also, because he’s now missing I keep wondering where he’s ended up and whether he might unwittingly become a part of the dark lord’s plans to break free of his prison – that’s my bet! Kevin is the most irritating to me at the moment (I much prefer the shy, quiet, brooding man to the boisterous, too-charming one) and I’m also a bit frustrated by Paul. As for the women, I keep getting them mixed up, because neither has stood out to me much. The only thing I can really say is that it feels like they’re a couple because of the way Kay has written their interactions. I know better than to expect that to happen… Paul and Kevin could also very easily be written as a couple, but I guess they’re just really good bros (or at least Kevin cares about Paul…).

…and what do you make of the characters and politics of Paras Derval?

Now, that I did like. I’m still trying to work out all the factions and what they might want, but I did enjoy the chaos of the court. The most interesting element is the banished older son, and I wonder how he compares to Diarmuid, whom I have mixed feelings about. On the one hand he is incredibly entertaining, but on the other hand he is sleazy. I am always weary of someone that is described as having a wide mouth… But I also think he’s very clever and even his questionable sex scene is something I suspect is part of a larger scheme. At least, I hope it wasn’t just about vanity and conquest and was a little more of a political move perhaps involving future heirs etc.

Everyone else is a little hazy… I like the king but he doesn’t strike me as a very strong character, proven by the fact he is not willing to sacrifice himself for his country’s wellbeing. Jaelle recalls very strongly the women from Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time with her shouting and self-righteousness but I am curious to find out more about her.

The obvious question: would you accept Loren’s invitation? Given the reception from Diarmuid and Gorlaes, would you regret it?

I think I probably would. I’ve always dreamed of being swept up in the kinds of stories I love to read, but I think I would put a lot more thought into it first, especially in regards to leaving my family behind and not knowing what lies ahead. I probably would wonder what on earth I’d gotten myself into right after that kind of reception, but I feel like I wouldn’t have let Loren take me anywhere without asking for a lengthy explanation of his world and current situations.

How/Do you judge Loren for keeping so many secrets from the visitors?

I think so far I am not fully aware of all the secrets, because again there is so much that is just alluded to. I definitely judge him for telling the five ‘hey come to this other world for a party’ and then immediately throwing them into a nest of vipers. I mean, he left them to their own devices only a few days later – sure, he’s going to look for Dave but still! But yeah, I don’t see any reason why he had to withhold information from the adventurers…

There is a lot of worldbuilding so far! Intriguing or overwhelming? Anything standing out for you?

There certainly is, and I am enjoying it quite a bit! Worldbulding and descriptions are a better match to the purple prose than the character and plot development. I like that we’ve already had a hint of the elves (or alfar), though despite the name change they strike me as very Tolkenian… I’m intrigued by the magical system, and also by the eponymous Summer Tree – more of that please! The idea of hanging on the tree is very Norse, so I’m keen to see if the rest of the mythology follows that trend. I suspect we’ll see a lot of it from Kim as she learns from Ysanne (brief interruption: I wanna know what’s up with her assistant!! That final sentence was very good prose, for all my complaining).

Any other thoughts?

As might be evident I am a little on the fence about this book, still, but the imagination and the world building are strong enough that I’m quite excited to keep going and see where it takes me. Also, as it happens I saw a beautiful hardback edition of the entire trilogy at Pisa airport on my way home from my little holiday and was very tempted to get it. Look how pretty:

And that’s all from me this week, I’m a little behind overall with both readalongs, so I’ll be focusing on The Darkest Part of the Forest for the next few days as I’m hosting week 2 for that, but then I’ll be diving back into Fionavar!

8 thoughts on “The Summer Tree Read-Along: Week One

  1. I agree! I’m on the fence about this book too and it took me a while to actually differentiate our travelers. But the world-building is very interesting and I want to know more. I also kind of miss Dave?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Yeah, Loren’s secrets for me are mostly his total failure to brief them on what to expect at court. Come to a party, it definitely won’t get weird. Uh huh.

    I’m glad you’re enjoying the worldbuilding; I can totally see how the character through allusions is really quite frustrating on first contact so I hope they start to come together for you as we go along.

    Liked by 1 person

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