The Summer Tree
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Recommended Ages: 15+
Things start to go wrong before their trip gets off the ground. First, something vicious has followed Loren and his dwarf companion Matt to Toronto. Then, one of the five students gets separated from the group on their way to Fionavar. Worst of all, they arrive at a tipping point in the history of Loren's world, when an evil god is about to break free of his thousand-year prison, while the king's reluctance to make the ultimate sacrifice causes the entire kingdom to be punished with a drought. And of course, the five young Canadian guests find themselves at the center of things, in ways even Loren did not quite foresee.
Kevin becomes a brother-in-arms to the kingdom's dissolute, dashing younger prince and heir, joining in a reckless mission to seduce the princess of a neighboring country. Kim picks up the mantle of the world's leading seer, and also discovers the true identity of Prince Diarmuid's exiled older brother Aileron. Dave, the one who became separated from the group, forges a bond of brotherhood with a band of nomadic hunters. Paul, emotionally paralyzed after his girlfriend's death, offers to make the sacrifice Ailell is unwilling to make. And Jennifer, captured by dark forces during a picnic with the elves, is fated to become a dark lord's plaything.
Though this is only the beginning of a much larger story, it is a beginning with tremendous promise. Kay juggles a large cast of characters, sustaining their conflicting motives and complex feelings seemingly without effort, and lets them move against a background of legend, history, culture, and magic that can stand scrutiny at any power of magnification. After one volume of a trilogy, it is more than possible to love these characters, to be ready to cheer them on as they step into heroic roles in a world that badly needs heroes.
Kay writes with a very distinctive voice, embracing sentence structures that may seem like mistakes until you recognize them as the marks of an individual style. In one passage, he drops mythic pronouncements as though from the lips of a bard in the full throe of epic; in another, he drops into the ironic cant of a law school professor intellectually demolishing a smart-aleck student in front of his class. Yet these changes of register work for Kay, just like the whole concept of five 20-somethings from the University of Toronto getting mixed up with kings, wizards, elves, etc. I am eager to see what miracles he works next.
This 1984 debut novel is the first book in the "Fionavar Tapestry" trilogy. Its companions are The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. Kay, a Canadian author who helped Christopher Tolkien edit his father's unpublished notes into the fantasy epic The Silmarillion, specializes in creating fantasy worlds with a touch of real-world history. His other books include the two-book "Sarantine Mosaic" series, the two "Under Heaven" books, and the novels Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, The Lions of Al-Rassan, The Last Light of the Sun, Ysabel, and Children of Earth and Sky. Frequently a nominee for the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award for Adult Literature (including for this book) and the World Fantasy Best Novel award, he won the latter for Ysabel in 2008.
EDIT: I forgot to mention it, but both an Adult Content Advisory and an Occult Content Advisory are in order for this book.