Tuesday, July 18, 2017

The Wandering Fire

The Wandering Fire
by Guy Gavriel Kay
Recommended Ages: 14+

Five 20th-century Canadian university students have gotten swept up in a magical adventure in the first of all worlds, of which our world is only one of many cheap knock-offs. Their acts, their loves, and their fates are now woven into the tapestry that shapes history throughout the multiverse. Tall, athletic Dave has become an axe-wielding berserker on the battlefield. Kim has been burdened with the inner sight of a seer. Paul has come back whole, and more than whole, after offering himself as a sacrifice on the Summer Tree. Jennifer has endured a violation that will strain her ability to love, just when her heart proves to be one point of an eternal story on which everything depends. And Kevin has reached the sorrowful conclusion that his only usefulness lies in the deep abandon that characterizes his sexuality. On these five visitors from modern-day Toronto hang the fortunes of kings, princes, princesses, priestesses, clan chiefs, warriors, and more. In this middle installment of "The Fionavar Tapestry," they awaken dangerous forces, summon terrifying beings, fight monstrous creatures, race against evil armies, and take journeys from which no one has ever returned before - and sometimes, they don't return. And after imbibing this heady mixture of a variety of strong spirits old and new, we the reader surface with wonder, realizing the epic is only two-thirds done.

I took my sweet time moving from the first volume of the trilogy, titled The Summer Tree, which I enthusiastically loved, to this second installment. Perhaps that explains why I found my enthusiasm had cooled somewhat. I'm of two minds about this book. After reading it, I still admire Guy Gavriel Kay, who helped edit Tolkien's posthumous masterpiece The Silmarillion, as a unique prose stylist whose every sentence is an original work of art. In my other mind, however, I was a little disappointed to have to slot him in with Peter S. Beagle in a class of authors who write with breathtaking lyricism, at the expense of choosing words sometimes (or, as Beagle would put it, "betimes") more for their musical effect than for their actual meaning; in this book, for example, Kay uses the word "evanescent" that way. Also, there were occasional moments in this book when I didn't altogether catch the drift of what Kay was saying in his oh, so clever way. My education, or rather the sad neglect thereof, is no doubt at fault.

Going back to my first mind, I also recognize in Kay a master adapter and synthesizer of folklore material into a compelling, moving new fantasy epic that puts him in the same class as Ursula K. Le Guin, Peter Dickinson, Robin McKinley, etc. He frequently writes passages of intense emotion that reach deep inside me and grab something that often go months, if not years, without being touched. I literally wept tears while at a couple points in this book, and had to go back and re-read one passage, aloud, so my cat would understand why I was so upset. I don't think the cat felt it, but I sure did. In the other mind, however, I saw through what sometimes seemed a precious conceit that every emotion every character felt at every point in this adventure, including (at times) terrible numbness, was the most powerful manifestation of its kind since the beginning of time, or at least since the age of legends. Perhaps, again, the fault is mine, in having a capacity for "drama fatigue" that makes me see melodrama where there is nothing but true drama, or bathos where there is really pathos. I am, after all, the guy who lapsed into acute "lyricism fatigue" while reading a certain book I won't name here.

Returning for a third time to my first mind, Kay's talent, his work experience, the scope of his material, and the overall richness, depth, complexity, and power of the weaving he has woven here, put him within striking distance of standing alongside Tolkien as a creator of great fantasy. But the other me hastens to point out that, where Tolkien's fantasy is essentially of a Christian character, Kay's is loaded with pagan tropes. So it behooves me to paste an Occult Content Advisory on this book, as well as an Adult Ditto, since this particular book seems on some level to be all about the various ways you can screw, and be screwed by, deities of classical and Celtic tradition. It depicts, for example, the ultimate sexrifice. Yes, I just said that. Versions of a lot of neo-pagan myths, beliefs, and rites get woven together in this tapestry, including mother goddess stuff, the legends of King Arthur, a cyclic view of history, the wild hunt, the horned god, etc., etc., etc. I'm not saying it isn't entertaining. I'm saying Tolkien might have been a bit miffed to find himself classed with this kind of thing. It is because the comparison is apt that I think Christian families who read together - and I know some - will appreciate the heads-up before they plunge into this epic.

Book 3 of "The Fionavar Tapestry" is The Darkest Road. For what all I have said above is worth, I am interested in seeing where it leads. Kay is still active as a writer, bringing forth new fantasy epics every few years based, in part, on the lore of various cultures. His other novels include Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, Sailing to Sarantium, Ysabel, and most recently Children of Earth and Sky.

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