The Fionavar Travesty

by Arthur B

Guy Gavriel Kay's high fantasy trilogy comes with hefty trigger warnings for rape and suicide.
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David, Paul, Kevin, Kim, and Jennifer are five college students at the University of Toronto. One day, they happen to catch a lecture on Celtic folklore by the reclusive expert Lorenzo Marcus, and afterwards are enlisted by Matt Sören, Lorenzo's aide, to help Lorenzo find an excuse to ditch the academic reception scheduled after the talk. Back at Lorenzo's hotel, Matt and Lorenzo reveal their true purpose: they are not from Earth at all, but world-hopping travellers from Fionavar, the First of All Worlds, and Lorenzo is really the mage Loren Silvercloak. Loren serves Aileil, the King of Brennin, and for the celebration of Aileil's jubilee year Loren has been challenged by the head mage of the kingdom to go find five guests from another world, one for each decade of Aileil's reign, to come enjoy the festivities.

At first sceptical, a few demonstrations of magic soon convince the group that Loren is serious - but during the ritual to pass between worlds, Dave panics and breaks the ritual circle, so he ends up dumped in a different area of the world altogether. Moreover, sinister forces are at work in Fionavar, with the Dark Lord Rakoth Maugrim stirring in his imprisonment under the mountain Rangat. Soon, each of the five will find themselves entangled in the affairs of Fionavar one way or another…

Before unleashing the The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy on the world, Guy Gavriel Kay's major contribution to fantasy fiction was editorial, not authorial, having helped Christopher Tolkien in constructing the published version of the Silmarillion from J.R.R.'s notes. Many consider the epic high fantasy tone of the Tapestry to be a riff on Tolkien, but I actually think it's even more reminiscent of a different story (though one which itself seems to lean on Tolkien a lot). Red Moon and Black Mountain was put out by George Allen & Unwin, Tolkien's UK publishers, so it seems eminently plausible that Kay would have been exposed to that work in the course of working with them on getting the Silmarillion finished. It has a dark lord associated with a sinister mountain, fought by a group drawn from our world where one of the group ends up deposited in a very different location from the others, and where the one who finds themselves alone befriends and wins the respect and admiration of a culture of nomadic hunters; it also has a bit where one of the people in our world ends up standing in as a sacrifice in an ancient ritual to renew the land.

Also, it has a female character whose role, at least as far as this first book goes, revolves solely around getting captured. Though at least in Red Moon Penelope's fate after being captured was only to be made utterly irrelevant, rather than... well, we'll get to that.

The Summer Tree piqued my interest due to the fact that, unlike many "people from our world go to fantasyland, do a lot of growing up" stories, this one revolves around college-age adults rather than kids. This not only allows Kay to signal that this isn't a children's story, but also lets him have the best of both worlds: college undergraduates tend to be at an age where you still end up doing a lot of personal growth and change, but at the same time have a bit of life experience under their belt. (Of course, kids of the age of the heroes of Red Moon and Black Mountain or The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe could well have powerful past experiences of their own - except in those books they don't.)

Unfortunately, as I read the book I found that the distribution of this life experience is decidedly uneven, with the result that some of the Earthly characters are far more developed than others. Paul and Kevin perhaps have the most substantial backstory. Paul's girlfriend Rachel ended up dying in a car crash, and Paul blames himself and believes it should have been him that died; Kevin has been trying to be a supportive friend and help Paul embrace life again, but is genuinely worried that he can't; there's a bit where they are doing some rock-climbing where Kevin becomes genuinely afraid that Paul will just let go of the rope and let himself get killed, or at the very least do the suicide-by-omission thing where if he gets in trouble he won't work too hard to save his skin but welcome the accident as a merciful release.

This is a nice bit of backstory because it enriches and adds depth to the action we see; with Kevin established as a good and supportive friend who is beginning to doubt whether it's even possible to help Paul, him striking up new friendships and becoming part of the retinue of the outgoing Prince Diarmuid makes sense, especially since Diarmuid's persona is much like the extroverted facade Paul presents to the world. On Paul's side, his despair and inability to see a purpose in life contextualises his decision to volunteer for being sacrificed on the Summer Tree, because whilst he has no reason to expect to survive that ordeal he honestly doesn't mind, and this way he would at least die accomplishing something and saving people from the drought afflicting Brennin. Likewise, Dave's prickly introversion and his shitty relationship with his father helps make him discovering new friends and a new father figure among the Dalrei nomads all the more meaningful.

The women do not get much of a meaningful backstory, and only the thinnest veneer of a personality. Kim is defined mostly by becoming the mystical Seer of Brennin, the office being passed down to her by the aged Ysanne, and shows almost no personality traits before then. Jennifer is in theory Kevin's ex-girlfriend - it is hinted that they broke up in the aftermath of Rachel's death - but neither this connection ever becomes very relevant. She accomplishes nothing except having a conversation with Jaelle, perilous and sacrifice-happy blood magic priestess of the Goddess, in which Jennifer shows flickering signs of having a bit of steel to her, before she is kidnapped by dark elves (well, "svart alfar", but basically dark elves), tied to the black of a badass talking black swan from the dawn of time, and flown to the dungeons of the Dark Lord.

Where he rapes her a lot and then hands her over to a dwarf buddy of his with instructions to inflict additional rapings on her, then kill her.

This, and escaping his mountain prison in epic style, are the only major contributions the Dark Lord himself makes to the plot in this volume. Suffering this is Jennifer's major contribution; apparently, she eventually gives birth to his child, who becomes a crucial character in the last book. The rape sequence is made all the more disturbing by the fact that it takes place on a replica of her parents' bed, with the Dark Lord constantly metamorphosing into various forms of men she has been friends with and felt safe with so that there is no escape from the horror.

About the only good thing I can say about the scene in question is that if Kay intended to horrify the reader, he succeeds. The sequence does not go into outright pornographic detail, but it still feels massively and gratuitously degrading. Moreover, it feels massively unnecessary, and even with the shapeshifting it comes across as tonally inconsistent and massively anticlimactic. This sequence comes towards the end of the novel, at a point where Jennifer has spent a good chunk of it strapped to the back of the dark hell-queen of all evil swans, with her inexorable passage to the Dark Lord become a source of increasing foreboding. The Dark Lord himself is the great Unraveller, dedicated to taking apart the very tapestry of the universe thread by thread, freed from long ages trapped under a mountain. For the culmination of all this to be a sleazy rape sequence which leaves the victim as the broken sex slave of a pervy dwarf seems immensely crass, making a character who is supposed to be a mystical and cosmological threat to all creation feel as grubby and mundane as some internet misogynist and giving Jennifer a wildly disproportionately grim deal compared to the cool friends and wild exploits the other Earthlings get to enjoy.

It is rare that a scene in the book manages to simultaneously elicit the reaction "Oh god, that's just gratuitously excessive and over the top, this is awful" and "Wait… that's it???", but this part manages it. It is simultaneously brutal enough to be really hard to read and, at the same time, mundane enough to feel intensely anticlimactic considering the chilling journey that precedes it.

Not that the Dark Lord is alone in being a shitbag. Diarmuid is an utter shit who does not respect women's boundaries, to the point where he unilaterally declares women his prey and tries to creep into their rooms at night. A long diversion involves Kevin and Paul accompanying Diarmuid south to a tryst with Sharra, princess of the decadent nation of Cathal; Diarmuid and Sharra's prior interactions amount to nothing except Diarmuid asking Sharra to meet him on an appointed date somewhere in her palace grounds. At the rendezvous, Diarmuid pressures Sharra into having sex with him, which she doesn't seem to consent to, and she goes along with it only when Kevin and Paul create the false impression that an unexpected guard patrol is coming and is sure to catch Diarmuid and kill him once he leaves. Later she tries to kill Diarmuid back at the capital of Brennin, only for him to spare her when she is captured; apparently, they eventually fall in love and get married.

The text is muddled enough that it is not clear that Sharra consented to sex in her palace garden; even if she did, it is fairly obvious that it was under radically false pretenses. This, and Diarmuid's appalling behaviour towards Kim and Jennifer (his primary target, until she is kidnapped), make him an apt portrayal of a far more common type of rapist than the shapeshifting Dark Lord variety - namely, the douchebag pickup artist frat boy brand of rapist.

Naturally, Kevin and Paul are buddies with him and see absolutely nothing wrong with his behaviour towards women; they are a bit put out when they see him murder an old man who was shouting open treason at him, but eventually seemed to accept it was a legitimate kill for good reasons. In fact, so far as I can make out Diarmuid's behaviour is supposed to come across as somehow endearing to the reader in a "boys will be boys" sort of way, like he's a big kid who's basically harmless really… whilst he's creeping into women's rooms and pressuring them into sex with him.

Another bit of tonal whiplash offered up by the novel is how grubby the politics and cultures are. In Sharra's realm the royalty - including her - have servants who displease them garotted. Diarmuid and his elder brother Aileron come perilously close to civil war over the succession before Diarmuid bows out of the running; Aileron, who we are meant to see as being a bit more serious-minded and heroic than Diarmuid, went so far as to set up snipers to take out Diarmuid if needed. Factionalism is rampant in court. Jaelle is incredibly sinister, though in a way which is regularly undermined. Between her posturing about the old ways and the way she slams Ysanne for giving up her position as the Goddess's top priestess for a grody man, Jaelle comes across as the sort of mean-spirited pastiche about feminists and strong female leaders that misogynists like to write. A major bit of drama when the choice of who becomes the next king of Brennin ends up in Jaelle's hands utterly fizzles when, before she can choose, Diarmuid ducks out of the running, because so far as I can make out Diarmuid never does anything which doesn't in some way belittle or patronise women.

The misogyny aside, I could get behind a story where the supposed cosmic ur-world (that looks a lot like medieval Europe because anglosphere navel-gazing is a powerful force) is actually run by a load of backstabbing swine, because being rotten comes so naturally to people it's practically an archetype whilst being nice takes effort. It would be an interesting reverse to have Earth people visit a world whose inhabitants have a whole bunch of stuff to learn from them, rather than the visitors doing all the learning, though it would be tricky to avoid giving such a story a colonialist spin.

However, all these muddled shades of grey may make Fionavar a richer and more varied setting, but it doesn't seem to fit the sort of epic high fantasy story that Kay actually wants to tell here. As a result, the politics and scheming ends up feeling more like a distraction than the main event.

The Tapestry has enjoyed a good reputation amongst fantasy readers mostly, so far as I can tell, on the strength of the writing, which to be fair at its best hits a nice balance between flavourful and page-turningly readable. However, this is decidedly patchy. There are several spots where it feels like Kay is rushing through a segment, though it is hard to tell whether this was down to the page count or simple incompetence. The assignation between Diarmuid and Sharra in her palace garden, for instance, suffers from the prose completely going to pieces; it feels like Kay was trying to crib from romance novels, or at least a fumblingly unfamiliar sense of what romance novels are like that may bear only coincidental resemblance to their reality, but wasn't comfortable with that style of writing and so hurried to get past it to concentrate on something more in his wheelhouse.

The biggest flaw of The Summer Tree, at least as far as its writing is concerned, is the ending. I can only assume that Kay got landed with an awkward publishing contract that he had to hack up his plans to appease, or a clumsy editor who didn't really know what they were doing, because the closing segments of the book are absurdly rushed. You've got stuff like a dwarf showing up to prompt Matt Soren to give an info-dump about his personal history, and then for the dwarf in turn to give an info-dump about what has been going on in the dwarf kingdom after Matt left, so a major plot point like how the Dark Lord escaped in the first place is barely addressed throughout the book and then dumped in the reader's lap all in one go. Then abruptly Kim realises that Jennifer is in trouble - well, she'd been aware of that for a while, but now is the time when Jennifer is about to be killed by the bad dwarf - so she gathers the Earthlings together to teleport back to Earth in the midst of the council of war.

So, let's review momentarily. Up to this point, no serious effort has been made to save Jennifer. Then, Kim abruptly does magic which in full deus ex machina style teleports Jennifer out of the Dark Lord's lair, despite the fact that the only other time we see travel between worlds it is made very apparent to us that not only does everyone need to be in the same place for it to work, but they also have to be in physical contact with each other, otherwise it just won't work - Dave getting lost was a direct consequence of him not holding on whilst the initial trip to Fionavar took place. We had no prior reason to expect that leaping back to Earth would work, and if the characters had any inkling that it could they should have jumped back to Earth as soon as they could in order to extract Jennifer that way. Moreover, a major crisis like Jennifer's kidnap is resolved in the space of a handful of pages, after the characters have done no work towards resolving it prior to that.

On top of that, The Summer Tree reveals serious problems with the structure of the trilogy as a whole, to an extent where I have to wonder whether Kay intended to write a longer series but was restricted to a trilogy by his editors. It's basically a big fat novel-length slab of prologue, establishing the characters and bringing them all together in one place before yelling "Time's up! See you next book!" - like if the first volume of Lord of the Rings suddenly finished about a quarter of the way into the Council of Elrond with Gandalf and the Hobbits abruptly leaping up out of their seats and running away.

As I understand it, the next volume in the series has the Earthlings doing some adventuring in our world to marshall some reinforcements for Fionavar, which is a nice Moorcockian twist. However, apparently it takes the form of summoning Arthur Pendragon to help out - and later on, Lancelot shows up and Jennifer turns out to be a reincarnation of Guinevere. (Poor Jennifer - invested with so little personality by her author he eventually had to wipe her personality and replace it with a more interesting one to keep her relevant.) Throwing in these additional characters, along with the substantially expanded cast Kay apparently plays around with the next books, feels like a huge mistake - any significant characters should have really been established in this first book, otherwise the "this is all prologue" structure becomes even more risible - and so far as I can make out the critical consensus is that the later books suffer from juggling too many characters. This is no surprise to me, given how badly Kay struggles to manage the characters he restricts himself to here.

The overall impression I get from The Summer Tree is of an author brimming over with ideas but without the discipline to exercise discretion in how they are used, and who seems torn between writing a grubby story of grimdark political infighting with magical flavouring on the one hand and a high fantasy pseudo-Arthurian saga on the other. Importing characters from Arthurian myth partway through the story seems to come a bit out of left field, as though Kay suddenly decided he was more interested in doing that than developing his existing cast. Kay has tended towards standalones since Fionavar, a move which is probably for the best since it forces him to finish off the ideas he was playing with in one story before moving on to the next.

Still, no matter how beautiful and evocative it can be at its best, The Summer Tree cannot survive the hammer blows of clumsy incompetence, constant short-changing of the women in the story, and the hypocrisy of trying to show how evil the Dark Lord is by having him rape someone when one of the alleged heroes of the story is a walking archetype of rape culture. It's like if a symphony conductor dropped his pants, took a shit onstage, and tossed his excrement into the audience before getting back to conducting the orchestra; no matter how good or bad the performance was, the music will inevitably be overshadowed by the poop incident. That's The Summer Tree for me in a nutshell, and I can only conclude that its prominence in the genre is due only to the fact that it came out at a time when standards were slacker and there were less high fantasy options out there.
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Comments (go to latest)
Bill at 20:53 on 2016-03-01
I tried reading this a few years ago and gave up after the first fifty pages, mostly because I didn't like any of the characters and I could never take a character named "Loren Silvercloak" seriously. What do they call him when the cloak is at the cleaners? Reading this article has made me very happy that I didn't get to the end.
Arthur B at 22:59 on 2016-03-01
After 50 pages I thought it was endearingly cheesy. After 350 more pages my opinion of it went downhill fast.
Michal at 01:41 on 2016-03-02
I think the rest of the trilogy redeems this book somewhat, but on the whole the series is wildly uneven, and Kay has written much better stuff since.

If I hadn't made an arbitrary goal a few years ago of reading everything by this author, I don't think I would have finished The Summer Tree (and in fact, quit after one chapter the first time I'd tried).
Alice at 20:04 on 2016-03-02
I read this a few years ago, and did in fact finish the trilogy, though in hindsight I'm pretty surprised I did. I don't remember that much about it, plot-wise, but I do remember it making me incredibly grumpy, largely because of the pervasive misogyny. Well, that and the fact that it basically became a re-telling of the Arthurian legends, and, as I realised as I was reading this trilogy, I just don't enjoy (most takes on) the Arthurian legends.
Arthur B at 22:53 on 2016-03-02
I think I geek out on Arthuriana more than you, but having consistently heard that the story turns into a partial re-tell of the Matter of Britain made me wary of how that was going to happen and the execution of The Summer Tree made me disinclined to see it.

The annoying thing is that, pervasive misogyny aside (and I appreciate that's a difficult thing to shove aside), I found the original aspects of the setting interesting enough that I would have probably found it annoying to have that shoved aside for the sake of retelling a different story that isn't especially hinted at in the first book.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 21:30 on 2016-03-03
I read this a considerable time a go and have to agree with you view. The story is very imbalanced between some epic and heroic moments (all of which aren't even war elated) and very nasty characters and the misogyny. The cultures and peoples seem very weird in the sort of Planet of the Hats way. There's the evil people, then the elves and dwarves and some nomads, medieval westerners and the decadent south. Also this first book is just putting in plot elements required for the story to unfold in the next books, which had some better moments but are pretty glum and carry on with most of the problems.

For example the violence done to Jennifer and the weird combination of horrific with anti-climactic and how it just happens for no reason at all all of a sudden is clearly there, because that is the way Kay wanted to plot his story. So he writes a horrific rape scene, because it's an easy way to creep the reader and then he just drops it and resolves it just as suddenly as he brought it about. And that's just because he needs the child from this atrocity and I suppose he could not come up with a better way to do it. That wasn't so exploitative or nonsensical, or was interested at all with the dignity of the characters.

The Black Swan I remember. And also there was that elf dude, who used to be really good, but now was like really evil, because of, you know, women! For those who haven't read the following books, but know now that there is pretty heavy Arthurian stuff in the next books, any bets on who you think Guinevere might be? But I guess that is a bit spoilerish. Sorry.
Arthur B at 21:54 on 2016-03-03
For those who haven't read the following books, but know now that there is pretty heavy Arthurian stuff in the next books, any bets on who you think Guinevere might be? But I guess that is a bit spoilerish. Sorry.

It's OK, I spoilered it in the review. ;)
Janne Kirjasniemi at 22:14 on 2016-03-03
Hell cats. I always have this problem of deciphering where te text ends and my thoughts begin and vice versa.
http://cheriola.livejournal.com/ at 21:45 on 2016-03-06
If you want more "Lost in a Fantasy World" type stories that aren't exactly for children, and you don't like anime (where this is a whole sub-genre, though the protagonist is usually a highschool kid, like in the classics "Visions of Escaflowne" and "Fushigi Yuugi" (girl protagonists) or "El Hazard" (boy protagonist, with the megalomaniac student body president, his workaholic sister, and the slacker sport's teacher in tow) or "Kyou Kara Maou!" (the – PG rated – gay parody version of the usual plot for female protagonists)), then I suggest the Rifter series by Ginn Hale, starting with "The Shattered Gates". The main protagonist is a 22-year-old post-grad student (though from his personality and attitudes I thought he was closer to 30, until his age was stated) who is stranded in the fantasy world with his two similarly aged but non-student best friends (a man and a woman, with the woman being the more colourful and capable character). Though aside from minor shared childhood reminiscences and the fact that the protagonist doesn't seem to have any contact to his parents (strife is implied, but isn't explained), we don't really find out much about these characters' lives before the plot starts. They're more characterized by their interests and beliefs than by any extraordinary events in their personal history. The fantasy world is fairly interesting and non-standard, vaguely reminiscent of "Avatar: The Adventures of Korra" maybe (in the sense of a somewhat Central-Asian-esque culture during a beginning industrial revolution; there's no elemental magic), and the narrative structure has some interesting bits as well. (The co-protagonist, who narrates alternating chapters, comes from the fantasy world and in a nice reversal spends a little time in the beginning narrating how strange and wonderful our (rich, western) world is to him in ways the Earthlings totally take for granted, but when he returns to his own world he finds that it also has changed a lot due to time travel shenanigans and actions the main protagonist has yet to take. Thankfully, this isn't actually spelled out to the reader.) Though the publishing structure is a bit odd: The books are just 200-400 pages each, but they read more like long chapters, not complete self-contained plots. The 10 books work more like a heavily serialized TV show, the kind without filler episodes, with each book representing one or two episodes. (There's even a "previously on…" summary at the beginning of each book.) I can't say very much about the plot, since I got stuck in book 3 or 4, where the story gets bogged down for a while in a boarding-school-like monastery setting (the protagonist is there as a servant, not as a pupil, but still, it narrows the scope of the plot sharply), and the alternating chapters from the more interesting co-protagonist's POV seem to stop. (While the main protagonist is less interesting on account of mainly just being your average introverted dude in his earthly life, I will say that he's genuinely good-hearted, unselfish and a decent person. Perhaps in a somewhat wish-fulfilling way from the perspective of the female author, but it's nice sometimes to be able to root for a hero without any reservations due to sexual misconduct or bigotry or whatever.) Do be warned that the main protagonist and the co-protagonist are gay and destined for romance, though it's very slow in getting there and the series doesn't seem to have been written as slash erotica. (Meaning that while the attraction is there, actual sex hasn't happened yet nearly a thousand pages in. But the different levels of homophobia in the clashing cultures do affect the characters' lives. Still, I wouldn't whole-heartedly recommend the series to a gay reader, because the author seems to have gone out of her way to make the fantasy culture as violently homophobic as possible, apparently just for drama and angst. On the other hand, homophobia does make sense for a largely still agrarian, deeply patriarchal society.)

Also maybe The Merchant Princes series by Charles Stross, of which I've just started to read the first book "Family Trade". The protagonist (at least in this first book) is an adult, divorced woman who studied pre-med and worked as a business journalist before getting fired for digging to deep into white collar crimes and then getting dragged off into a parallel world where America was settled by Norse and Chinese colonists, who are mostly still in a feudal medieval stage, even though a few families can shift between the worlds and are making a huge profit by taking advantage of our world's much more rapid transportation system (and by importing a few modern goods for the rich). It's not completely a "lost in a fantasy world" plot, since the protagonist can go back and forth, but she soon finds that obligations to her new-found relatives and dangers from their rivals mean that she has to find her place in their society instead of continuing to live her life on our Earth. As I said, I'm not through with the book yet, but I really do like the protagonist. She's refreshingly practical, e.g. the first thing she does when she gets back to the modern world for a day trip under guard is buy a solar charger for her laptop, a bunch of modern equipment that might help her escape from her mafia-like family's tight supervision, and various digital literature on the Middle Ages. And while the author is somewhat scattershot when it comes to minority inclusiveness and did-there-really-have-to-be-a-rape-scene-here?, he's been consistently good at writing convincing, capable female protagonists in the handful of his other novels I've read, so I've got high hopes. The book is also a lot more honest about what life in pre-industrial times was like than usual in fantasy settings – i.e. for anyone but the feudal nobility, it's awful, and even the nobles mostly have to deal with cold castles without running water and days-long travels in cold, barely cushioned carriages. I get the feeling that in this series you'll get your wish of the modern character altering the fantasy world for the better. (The male love interest even spent some time on Earth studying history and the economics of developing nations, for the specific purpose of wanting to change how things are done in his home society. Then the family blocked his efforts at reform.) The danger of colonialist storytelling feels sufficiently averted (to me) by the fact that the people she's intending to teach and change are also of European ancestry (and she's technically one of them, just adopted by Earthlings as a baby), and it's made clear that it's not as easy as simply imparting knowledge if the entire technical and cultural infrastructure is lacking and there are vested interests in keeping the social structure stratified and exploitative. (Though the author makes comparisons to Saudi Arabia that are rather unfair, considering that that country's ruling class did use a lot of their wealth to lift their population out of poverty with subsidized health care and education and such.)

And since you mention liking Arthuriana: There's a short story by Terry Pratchett titled "Once and Future" (published in the collection "A Blink of the Screen") in which a stranded time traveler ends up having to play Merlin and organizing the whole 'sword in the stone' thing (using electromagnets embedded in concrete) in order to improve the situation in the leaderless country at least a little. Pratchett isn't very good at writing short stories, so don't expect great literature, but it has a nice feminist twist.
Bill at 00:01 on 2016-03-08
If you want a great riff on the "trapped in a fantasy world" genre, there's Diana Wynne Jones's Dark Lord of Derkholm.
http://baeraad.livejournal.com/ at 20:27 on 2016-03-10
The women do not get much of a meaningful backstory, and only the thinnest veneer of a personality.

I object, I found Kim to be a very cool character and an interesting mix of assertive and easy-going, ill-tempered and nurturing. And even Jennifer has her moments, though it's true that she's a bit too demure and passive to really stand out much. Blame it on being the reincarnation of the original damsel in distress, I suppose.

About the only good thing I can say about the scene in question is that if Kay intended to horrify the reader, he succeeds.

"If"? "If" he intended to horrify the reader? This is something you consider to be in doubt? Of course he intended to horrify the reader! Is there anything in that scene that implies to you a different agenda than to horrify?

Moreover, it feels massively unnecessary, and even with the shapeshifting it comes across as tonally inconsistent and massively anticlimactic.

I don't know, evil is petty?

But yeah, I actually agree. Rape isn't just evil, it's contemptible - an expression of weakness. I had no trouble hating Rakoth after that scene, but I did have trouble taking him seriously. An villain with some self-respect doesn't need to pull out his dick to be unspeakably evil.

At the rendezvous, Diarmuid pressures Sharra into having sex with him, which she doesn't seem to consent to

Ah yes, "pressure." That sinister male power of mind control that render grown women incapable of making their own decisions. It's right up there with "does not respect women's boundaries" when it comes to dismissing women's agency under the guise of defending them. Did Sharra really strike you as the sort of person who's easy to "pressure" into doing something she doesn't actually want to do?

Look, I'm not saying that in the real world (where there isn't an author who knows what everyone is thinking and can assure that there are no unfortunate misunderstandings) a man thinking he knows what woman what she really wants regardless of what she says to the contrary isn't obnoxious at best, potentially dangerous at worst. But the fictional tradition of seduction that this story draws on is all about the man tempting the woman to do what she does in fact want to do but that she's been told by a rigid, repressive society that good girls don't do. I don't recommend anyone trying it in real life, but as a fictional conceit it's not malicious.

make him an apt portrayal of a far more common type of rapist than the shapeshifting Dark Lord variety - namely, the douchebag pickup artist frat boy brand of rapist.

Because being a bit overly assertive is more or less the same thing as trapping someone in a room and forcibly holding them down while fucking them. It's only Patriarchal Toxic Masculinity Rape Culture that creates the illusion that those are, y'know, fairly drastically different things.

You know, I don't even like strutting macho men who thinks that they're the best thing since sliced bread and that anyone who doesn't agree with that is just in denial. But I see a difference between them and rapists. Here's a hint - one of them ignores a "no." The other one halts at the "no" but is smugly sure that he can turn it into a "yes" if he just keeps talking long enough. One is a violent criminal. The other... is an annoying douchebag. Those two are not the same thing.

Jaelle comes across as the sort of mean-spirited pastiche about feminists and strong female leaders that misogynists like to write.

Because they exist. The feminists in numbers, the strong female leaders a bit more rarely, but - Thatcher, anyone?

I wouldn't dream of calling The Fionavar Tapestry fair on gender issues. It is definitely a boys' story, and it feels like it was written by a man who had gotten yelled at by a few too many Second Wave feminists besides. But having a female character think she's about ten times as awesome as she really is and that the failure of the world around her to recognise that is a sign of intolerable oppression? Yeah, I've met that woman in real life a little too often for me to raise an eyebrow at it.

If it helps, try to think of it this way. Jaelle's all-female cult used to have a monopoly on magic. Then some guys figured out a way to break it, and subsequently out-competed her. In other words, she's angry because social progress took away her unearned privilege!

It would be an interesting reverse to have Earth people visit a world whose inhabitants have a whole bunch of stuff to learn from them, rather than the visitors doing all the learning, though it would be tricky to avoid giving such a story a colonialist spin.

Yes, it's hard being a social justice warrior, isn't it? There's just so few things you can do without being Offensive.

That aside, er... no, I don't think it would be particularly interesting. It would be fairly common, actually. Seen it a million times. Hell, Mark Twain did it, back in his day.

Then, Kim abruptly does magic which in full deus ex machina style teleports Jennifer out of the Dark Lord's lair, despite the fact that the only other time we see travel between worlds it is made very apparent to us that not only does everyone need to be in the same place for it to work, but they also have to be in physical contact with each other, otherwise it just won't work - Dave getting lost was a direct consequence of him not holding on whilst the initial trip to Fionavar took place.

I realise that not every reviewer on a site has to walk in lockstep, but didn't the Mistborn review slam Brandon Sanderson for making his magic internally consistent instead of having it be mystical and unpredictable? Fionavar magic is more romantic and prone to take feelings and drama into account - I don't think it's even meant to be 100% consistent. If that doesn't satisfy you, just consider that Kim's ring isn't the same as magician magic.

I can only conclude that its prominence in the genre is due only to the fact that it came out at a time when standards were slacker and there were less high fantasy options out there.

Orrrrrrrr not every fantasy reader is as sensitive as you. That's another possibility.
Arthur B at 07:46 on 2016-03-11
I object, I found Kim to be a very cool character and an interesting mix of assertive and easy-going, ill-tempered and nurturing. And even Jennifer has her moments, though it's true that she's a bit too demure and passive to really stand out much.

a) Kim expressing contradictory personality traits depending on the needs of the scene in question does not amount to Kim having a distinctive personality. It rather implies the reverse.

b) None of this amounts to a backstory.

Blame it on being the reincarnation of the original damsel in distress, I suppose.

A plot point that flies so deeply under the radar for the first volume it makes me suspect that Kay only decided that this was the case in the process of writing the later books.

"If"? "If" he intended to horrify the reader? This is something you consider to be in doubt? Of course he intended to horrify the reader! Is there anything in that scene that implies to you a different agenda than to horrify?

Turn of phrase, dude, turn of phrase.

Did Sharra really strike you as the sort of person who's easy to "pressure" into doing something she doesn't actually want to do?

Demonstrably not, that's why Diarmuid ropes Kevin and Pete into this James Bond operation to trick her into thinking Diarmuid is going to get captured and killed in order to get her to consent to sex under false pretenses. But just because something is difficult doesn't mean it is laudable.

But the fictional tradition of seduction that this story draws on is all about the man tempting the woman to do what she does in fact want to do but that she's been told by a rigid, repressive society that good girls don't do. I don't recommend anyone trying it in real life, but as a fictional conceit it's not malicious.

Even if we took as the premise that this is a fictional conceit worth perpetuating (and given its intersection with rape culture, I don't), I would argue that Kay doesn't really do his homework in establishing that this is the case. Diarmuid keeps asserting that this is what he is doing, Sharra keeps giving me the impression that she just wants him to go away and that Diarmuid's assumptions are off-base.

Because being a bit overly assertive is more or less the same thing as trapping someone in a room and forcibly holding them down while fucking them. It's only Patriarchal Toxic Masculinity Rape Culture that creates the illusion that those are, y'know, fairly drastically different things.

"A bit overly assertive" involves creeping into people's rooms at night?

And I think that by saying Diarmuid is a different type of rapist from the Dark Lord I am in fact saying that violent, forcible rape of a kidnap victim is not the same thing as what Diarmuid is doing.

Rape is not defined by violence, it is defined by a lack of consent, and Diarmuid shows such a cavalier disregard for consent that if he isn't a rapist it is more through good luck than due diligence.

The other one halts at the "no" but is smugly sure that he can turn it into a "yes" if he just keeps talking long enough. One is a violent criminal. The other... is an annoying douchebag. Those two are not the same thing.

First off, I don't think that is all that Diarmuid does. Obtaining consent under false pretenses goes beyond turning a no into a yes by talking long enough.

Secondly, thinking he can inevitably turn a no into a yes by talking long enough is exactly the thinking that PUAs use. You don't think the PUA scene has a big problem with rape?

Thirdly, Diarmuid doesn't limit his actions to talking - he creeps into people's rooms at night.

But having a female character think she's about ten times as awesome as she really is and that the failure of the world around her to recognise that is a sign of intolerable oppression?

She's the high priestess of the goddess, an office which she regularly points out has enormous institutional power which is regularly overruled and ignored by those who are riding roughshod over the goddess's traditions. I think she kind of has a point.

Unfortunately, Kay seems to have the goddess side against her, and use some random stranger to tell her that she's wrong rather than, you know, actually keep her own priesthood in the loop herself. So she does end up coming across as a strawman Second Waver.

Yes, it's hard being a social justice warrior, isn't it?

Dude, you're seriously going down this path, on this site, knowing the general consensus among the audience on here?

I realise that not every reviewer on a site has to walk in lockstep, but didn't the Mistborn review slam Brandon Sanderson for making his magic internally consistent instead of having it be mystical and unpredictable? Fionavar magic is more romantic and prone to take feelings and drama into account - I don't think it's even meant to be 100% consistent. If that doesn't satisfy you, just consider that Kim's ring isn't the same as magician magic.

I wrote the Mistborn review. And there is a distinction between being mysterious and openly contradictory, and being internally consistent and being beholden to fiddly and reductionist rules.

Either way, my problem there is less that the magic seems to contradict itself - though it does - and more that it is a clumsy deus ex machina which trivially and instantaneously solves the problem in such a way that they could have done it a good long time before and saved Jennifer a lot of grief (why not do it as soon as Kim has the stone and some degree of power over it, and get Dave back to boot?), and which takes what was a major crisis and resolves it in the space of a page or so.

Orrrrrrrr not every fantasy reader is as sensitive as you.

Like I said, "standards were slacker".
James D at 02:25 on 2016-03-17
Oh hey, it's another edition of "I liked it so all your criticisms are wrong." Instead I'd like to talk about this:
And there is a distinction between being mysterious and openly contradictory, and being internally consistent and being beholden to fiddly and reductionist rules.

The difficulty of finding a middle ground between those two is what kills an awful lot of fantasy for me. I couldn't get through Mistborn for that reason - on the other side of the equation, the second Thomas Covenant trilogy had a lot of mysterious and cool bits of magic but together they added up to a terrible mismatched jumble that seemed arbitrary and poorly justified. Magic's gotta be exciting and amazing and wondrous, but also make sense, which can be a pretty nasty catch-22.
Janne Kirjasniemi at 14:59 on 2016-03-19
Magic's gotta be exciting and amazing and wondrous, but also make sense, which can be a pretty nasty catch-22.


That's pretty much the crux of the matter. Explaining everything robs the mystery of it, but having things just happen at convenient times without explanation is nonsensical and really expose the strings of the author making the story (although that has been used as a gimmick too, at times succesfull, at other times not. Yay post-modernism). Kind of like how 'The lord works in mysterious ways' can in some contexts summon up the whole baffling incomprehensibility of existence and in some contexts it seems a weak platitude to explain away that same incomprehensible nature.

There are similar dichotomies in fiction in general. At some point, Chehov's guns become clumsy plot conveniences, instead of maintaining the cohesion of the narrative. And some coincidences are the mainstay of fiction, but handled wrong they become ridiculous. I think handling these sorts of things is one of the things that make a great piece of writing. And of course such things can be very subjective as well.
Arthur B at 19:06 on 2016-03-19
Yeah, I would say that the problem lies in much in the execution as in the essential facts of what happened. The scene in question is so horribly rushed that Kay literally doesn't given himself a chance to sell the reader on what's happening. And maybe stuff like "Why didn't they do the teleport-rescue long before?" and other problems I have with it would have made somewhat more sense if Kay had had time to unpack the details a bit more.
James D at 00:43 on 2016-03-21
Right, it's similar to the whole "why didn't Frodo & company just hop on the giant eagles and fly straight to Mordor to begin with" issue. In the movies it's not quite as clear why, but in the books it's emphasized much more clearly that secrecy is the ONLY chance they have for success, and should Sauron catch sight of a big flock of giant eagles flying straight toward Mount Doom, he would figure things out pretty quickly and easily put a stop to their plans. Like literally one Nazgul standing just inside the doorway to the forge in Mount Doom is all it would've taken. It's a slight fault in the books that this isn't spelled out a little more explicitly. It's a much bigger fault in The Summer Tree because there isn't any kind of explanation that can be gleaned from the text.

Of course, Tolkien was writing in a time when readers weren't so wise to tropes and primed to catch plot holes, so the need to preemptively defuse that kind of internet nitpicking didn't occur to him. It really, really should have occurred to Kay.
Robinson L at 15:30 on 2016-04-25
I've heard about Kay in the past, but never gotten around to reading him. I may or may not try out some of his other stuff in future, but probably not this trilogy.

Not much to comment on the review itself—it's quite good and entertaining—except this bit:

being rotten comes so naturally to people it's practically an archetype whilst being nice takes effort

Really? *cocks head* Can I get a citation for that? Generally, in my experience, it's the other way around.

Janne: any bets on who you think Guinevere might be?

Well, even if Arthur hadn't already stated the answer, the name is kind of a major clue.

As it happens, last year my mother and I read an “Arthurian characters reborn in contemporary (which is to say, mid-90s) England” book by a spiritual guru of whom she is a fan. The writing was very uneven, with some quite clever bits alongside weak and confusing parts. However, this one also had the main villain raping Guinevere's modern incarnation—which, given how symbolic the rest of the book is, no doubt symbolizes the degradation of the divine feminine in Western culture, but it's still incredibly skeevy.

Bill: If you want a great riff on the "trapped in a fantasy world" genre, there's Diana Wynne Jones's Dark Lord of Derkholm.

Seconded. Hmm, maybe I ought to write up a review of that one someday.

Cheriola: There's a short story by Terry Pratchett titled "Once and Future" (published in the collection "A Blink of the Screen") in which a stranded time traveler ends up having to play Merlin and organizing the whole 'sword in the stone' thing (using electromagnets embedded in concrete) in order to improve the situation in the leaderless country at least a little. Pratchett isn't very good at writing short stories, so don't expect great literature, but it has a nice feminist twist.

Seconding the recommendation on this, too. My mom and I read several stories from A Blink of the Screen after the King Arthur book last year, and “Once in Future” was one of the better ones. As you say, great literature it ain't, because short stories really weren't Pratchett's forte, but it's still definitely worth a read. In his (spoilerific) intro to the story, Pratchett noted how he'd toyed with the idea of expanding it into a novel, and having read the piece, I'm quite sorry he never did. Apart from exploring the implications of the aforementioned twist, it would be fun to get more Pratchett style Connecticut Yankee commentary from the story's narrator. Plus, the workings of time travel the narrator describes sound like a good set up for a series of books or stories in the vein of Connie Willis' Time Travel Institute writings.

Arthur: Dude, you're seriously going down this path, on this site, knowing the general consensus among the audience on here?

I find it useful to mentally translate “social justice warrior” as “decent human being”:

Yes, it's hard being a decent human being, isn't it? There's just so few things you can do without being Offensive.

(Do I remember hearing about an app that would replace “political correctness” with “treating people with respect” or something to that tune a little while ago?)

On the subject of mystical magic vs. rules based magic, since we've already invoked Sanderson, I think he's on to something in his First Rule of Magic where he says that in general, major interventions into the story by strange and mystical magic should only make the situation worse, not better. Or, as my dad once put it, such magic should only come into play to complicate the story, not simplify it.

Don't know if following that principle would've helped the Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, which I've never read, but it sure sounds like it would have averted the problem of The Summer Tree's ending.
Arthur B at 22:37 on 2016-04-25
Really? *cocks head* Can I get a citation for that? Generally, in my experience, it's the other way around.

Nick Cave is all the citation I need.

But to unpack the thought more, I wasn't going with that as a statement of how reality actually is so much as an inversion of the way this sort of cosmology tends to work. There's lots of stories going way back to the Eden thing which posits that in people's primal, pure, transcendent state they are basically good, but by being engaged with this imperfect world they ended up getting all fucked up, and I'd kind of like to see a different spin where people's so-called "Higher Selves" are unworthy of the term and it's through engagement with the world and each other that we become more than self-serving solipsists.
Robinson L at 20:00 on 2016-04-26
Nick Cave is all the citation I need.

Two can play that game.

All playfulness aside, you make a fair point. But isn't it also a trope going at least as far back as Hobbes to claim that people's primal, pure, transcendent state is to lead lives which are "nasty, brutish, and short," and that only a "thin veneer of civilization" separates us from a nonstop production of The Lord of the Flies? Personally, I find both the idealistic, Pollyannaish view of "human nature" and the cynical, Hobbesian view comparably simplistic and insufferable when presented in their extreme forms (as they often are). Works which attempt to disprove one extreme by merely flipping the script and asserting the opposite are equally wrongheaded and trite in my view. That said, the scenario who describe sounds sufficiently more thoughtful and nuanced that I think I would appreciate and enjoy reading a work which takes that approach, even if I didn't necessarily agree with the conclusion.
Adrienne at 09:47 on 2016-04-30
I have a deep and abiding love for the Tapestry, despite all the very valid criticisms Arthur mentions. I reread them occasionally, even. The prose is uneven, especially in the first book, but when Kay is good he is amazing.

I'm late to the party, but i did want to mention to Arthur: he did, in fact, intend the Arthuriana from the very beginning. The dog who shows up when Paul is on the Tree is, in point of fact, Arthur's dog Cavall. It's not terribly WELL signposted, but it is signposted. And in an interview about the books that I can't find right now, Kay said something to the effect of wanting to write a story where those characters could be set like a jewel in a crown.
Adrienne at 09:55 on 2016-04-30
Oh! Also one thing about Jennifer, in the latter books, is that the text refuses to define her solely as a victim. She is clearly shown to have agency, to make choices, and to be deeply affected by her trauma but not wrecked by it. She is not Impure or Tainted or Unclean; she is simply a woman who had some Bad Shit happen to her, and moves on from that as best she can - and quietly, insistently makes everyone else in the narrative let her do that rather than treating her like a helpless flower.

(She is still far too defined, in the text, by her relationships with men; Kim is really the only one who escapes that particular authorial annoyance. But she is not reduced to ashes by virtue of being a rape survivor, and that is a thing that can be appreciated.)
Arthur B at 11:53 on 2016-04-30
Interesting to know that the Arthuriana tie-in was intended from the beginning; I think it's still a stumbling block for me because it really, really isn't telegraphed at all well that it's going to happen, and it's not telegraphed even slightly well that it's going to happen in the form the actual Arthur and Lancelot showing up.

I went in knowing that there were Arthurian aspects to the story, but since Fionavar is explicitly presented as being the first of all worlds I thought it'd turn out that some of the existing characters in Fionavar would turn out to be the archetypal ur-Arthur and ur-Mordred and so on. That this doesn't happen seems to be one of several ways in which the whole "first of all worlds" thing seems to be nothing more than a PR boast.
Adrienne at 02:42 on 2016-05-01
Well, the thing is, there IS no ur-Arthur. The story of Arthur is presented as ... something that only happened once, and for part of which the punishment is that the characters get ... reborn or re-created (it's not entirely clear). So they're known in all the worlds (there's definitely an implication that travel between worlds used to be a lot easier, too) -- but the REAL story, the first story, that caused all the trouble, actually happened in our world.

I'm not saying it's not done clumsily in several ways -- as i said, i love the books despite the fact that most of your criticisms are entirely valid!

(I can't blame you for not reading the other two books, but I have to at least say that i think you probably should if you can stand it -- it's Tolkien homage in many ways, and one of those ways is that it's really NOT three books, it's one book, in parts.)
Adrienne at 03:02 on 2016-05-01
One of the interesting things about the way the Arthur subplot plays out is that there's some implication that his story -- "saddest tale of all the long tales told" -- actually warps the world around it. That Jennifer was, in fact, just Jennifer; she wasn't Guenevere until Arthur showed up. She didn't recover some sort of lost memory or whatever; the story took her.And even once that happens, she maintains her selfhood, her agency, and she actively works against "destiny" at more than one point, albeit quietly.

(One of the overarching themes of the Tapestry is "fuck destiny", really. There's all these prophecies and Chosen Ones and shit that's supposed to happen, and at every turn the characters -- not even just the protagonists, but minor characters! -- make choices that subvert the Way Things Are Supposed to Go. And the text doesn't handwave it as "oh, these things were actually Supposed To Go this way from the start"; it's made clear that there is real freedom even for characters who have Destined Paths, and that people's decisions can create better outcomes, for themselves and the whole world, than just following along with the Intended Plotline would've.)
Arthur B at 13:47 on 2016-05-01
So they're known in all the worlds (there's definitely an implication that travel between worlds used to be a lot easier, too) -- but the REAL story, the first story, that caused all the trouble, actually happened in our world.

Which is exactly why this whole "first of all the worlds" thing is such bullshit - if Fionavar is this primal ur-world from which the pattern of the tapestry propagates throughout the multiverse surely the stories which cosmically resonate throughout the multiverse should hail from there?

I can't blame you for not reading the other two books, but I have to at least say that i think you probably should if you can stand it

/looks at pile of stuff yet to read that I'm more enthused about than this trash.

Nnnnnnnnnnnnnnnnno I shouldn't. :P
Janne Kirjasniemi at 22:37 on 2016-05-01
Adrienne:

One of the overarching themes of the Tapestry is "fuck destiny", really. There's all these prophecies and Chosen Ones and shit that's supposed to happen, and at every turn the characters -- not even just the protagonists, but minor characters! -- make choices that subvert the Way Things Are Supposed to Go.


I agree with this very much. And I agree that the following books are better. It seems that the way the story is supposed to go and the thing with true destinies is that thay all are a game rigged by the big bad source of all evil and fighting against it and departing from the narrative is possible, but always entails a large personal price, often ending in death or worse. All the evil master plans are foiled by an altruistic choice. And by the last book, that results in some very epic and touching moments. The biggest problem is the way it is all set up at the start, that is the first book which was under discussion. If it fails to create sympathy for the protagonists and the world, it can make the reader apathetic and annoyed at what is supposed to be great moments of self-sacrifice and altruism from a three-dimensional character who might succumb to bickering and selfishness. Take Diarmuid, for example. If the creepiness factor gets too great at the beginning, and I think he is supposed to be a very selfish, but likable rogue sort of person, it kinda undercuts what happens after that to him and his relationship with Sharra.

On Jennifer, it is interesting, that she very much is not a passive character, but rather starts taking advantage of and actively manipulate the story she is abducted by to protect the things she finds important as Jennifer and not as Guinevere.

Robinson:

I find both the idealistic, Pollyannaish view of "human nature" and the cynical, Hobbesian view comparably simplistic and insufferable when presented in their extreme forms (as they often are).


Yeah, people are very much capable of both, sometimes at the same time even, depending on context. Very few are actively and only monsters and very few are absolute saints in everything. Rather they function in the environment they are based on how they think the world is in their experience. That's how many social ills and injustices are perpetuated, often without people even questioning whether a thing is just or not, even by their own standards. And all the nice cognitive processes that we have to protect our views of the world from cognitive dissonance and such like stuff hardly helps. Everybody wants to feel they are in the right and good people in general (except if one has depression, but that is a whole other thing) and it can be tricky to verify this, when there is really no absolute, discernable moral laws to compare against, even if a person is of the contemplative sort which most people are not. Like this MRA crowd and Sad Puppies and Gamers Gate people, who will go to great lengths and do awful things just to shelter their image of the ideal world, whatever that may be (my glib guess is some sort of ideal childhood, when all the stories and games were really cool) just to avoid admitting that there might actually be significant problems with how things are, and the people pointing out those problems are not it.
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