Nostalgia read, sparked by a bookclub desire to read the series. What can I say?
I first read this not long after the series came out (1984 for the first one). I was in my early teens, and there wasn’t much fantasy that felt inclusive of females, stories told in a lush world of sweeping scope. You know how desperate my thirteen year-old self was? Two words: Thomas Covenant. Kay was a refreshing summer breeze, and the writing–oh, the writing! It remained shiny in my memory, musical and strong enough to pull at the heart.
Like many nostalgia reads, I was somewhat afraid to approach it again, afraid it wouldn’t hold up to twenty-five years of memories. However, I found it remained satisfying, almost as delicious, just as emotional and evocative, and somehow, even more balanced than I remembered.
The simple synopsis is a familiar one in classic fantasy, particularly of the ‘alternate world’ subgenre so popular in the 80s. Five Canadian college students attend a lecture and conference anchored by a famous but reclusive Celtic specialist. He and his friend invite them to coffee after, where they share an unbelievable story. They need Kim to return with them to another world called Fionavar, but are hoping for a group of five to take part in a kingdom celebration. He gives them the night to think it over, and it is a night that gives glimpses into the lives and personalities of the five: Kimberly, troubled by strange dreams ; Kevin, the playboy lawyer; Dave, football player, junior law student and painfully introverted; Jennifer, roommate to Kim and Kevin’s ex-girlfriend ; and Paul, recently ill and still recovering from his girlfriend’s death. They all agree to go with the mage Loren to Fionavar, but in the middle of the ceremony, Dave panics and tears away, and thus fails to arrive with the rest of the group at the capital city. Despite being a celebration of the fiftieth year of the king’s reign, they are immediately embroiled in politics between the Mages’ Council, between a disowned older prince and a frivolous, flamboyant one, and an elderly seer with a mysterious connection to Kim. They also discover that a darkness seems to be overshadowing the land. Evil creatures that haven’t been seen in years are reappearing, and the land has been under a prolonged drought.
One of the interesting things about the Finovar series is the number of different European mythologies Kay pulls into his book. The world tree and the ravens from Norse mythology, the sacrifice to the crone (Mother Earth) for renewal, the twins, the Arthurian tale, the cauldron of rebirth, the Wild Hunt, the great boar marking a hunter. The themes are the Big Ones, the preoccupation of stories for millennia–forgiveness, power, sacrifice, and choice. Damn if he doesn’t make me cry; every moment of success comes with sacrifice.
If the prose doesn’t quite carry the lush beauty and smooth transitions of his later style, well, it remains enjoyable with a nice balance between action and description. Some may feel the prose is overblown, but I thought it worked well with evoking the larger thematic concepts–these are fundamental concepts that have been in stories since we’ve told stories, and echo back to Shakespeare, to Greece, to Celtic myths. In a post on Kay’s authorized web page is an Afterward written for the twenty-year edition. Interestingly, he notes that, “The principal reason the language of the trilogy differs from my later books is that this was my mythic endeavour. The others track a movement (not a consistent one) towards history. It seemed proper to me, back then, to pursue a way of telling the story of Fionavar that would fit that mythic dimension. I imagined the arc of the narrative in operatic terms.”
It was also interesting to note how fast paced this felt, especially compared to his more recent works such as Under Heaven. Indeed, that was one of the surprises of the re-read, that so much happened in the first volume (and the second. And the third, because I couldn’t just stop at the first). I do have small quibbles, of course. Some of the shifting feels abrupt, and I wonder if he would re-write them. I suppose to some it might be ‘young adult,’ but these are the days when young adult wasn’t particularly defined; if anything, it was adult reading level and concepts without sex, so I’m not sure I would agree.
Interesting aside: there’s a story line in here where the extravagant prince is a bit of an ass. Kay’s anniversary piece mentions how surprised he was that more people didn’t find his actions “indefensible”–it was a vignette meant to demonstrate negative aspects of his personality. I’ve seen a few reviews that mention that as a book flaw, and I’d have to suggest they’re missing the full scope of the point., the contrast between the brothers and traits both admirable and limiting.
Further aside, of the sort I rarely pay attention to–what a beautiful cover in these editions. I have the second in hardcover and need to commit to finding the first and third in hardcover.
Ultimately, I think Kay achieves his goal of writing a mythical tale that transcends time.