Nicking from Novels: Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Fionavar Tapestry

The Fionavar Tapestry consists of Guy Gavriel Kay’s first three published novels (The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road). Kay is an author I’ve been recommended to read intermittently for years, mostly his later stuff. One of my colleagues in the English department is a big fan of Kay’s work, and refreshed those recommendations this spring. When I finally made it back to the public library in May, I grabbed Fionavar, in part because the library’s collection of Kay’s newer works is a combination of sparse and frequently checked out.

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Overview

The Tapestry books belong to that broad category I call “Narnia Books”—not because they are a thinly-veiled Christian allegory, but because they are the story of contemporary real-world characters plucked from their world into a wholly-discrete fantastic one. (The “wholly discrete” thing is a useful distinction—it makes the Thomas Covenant books “Narnia Books,” but not things like Gaiman’s Neverwhere, which are more about discovering a secret world that overlaps with our own.)

Paul, Kevin, Dave, Kim, and Jennifer are taken by a mage named Loren from Toronto to Fionavar, the “first of all worlds.” It’s a little Amber-ish in category, but Fionavar’s firstness is only ever used to goad certain characters forward. Ostensibly, the Canadians are taken to Fionavar to celebrate the 50th year of a king’s reign. Naturally, fate has different things in store for them.

Many of those things are dark. The alternative version of this post revolved around the idea that “nothing comes without a cost.” People suffer. People die. People suffer worse than death. The whole second book in the series is like the doomed ride of the Rohirrim in Tolkien: stoic bravery in the face of impossibly bad odds. (I’m a sucker for that brand of heroism.) There’s much about fate, and about avoiding fate through sacrifice.

Fionavar is a rich world that borrows its tropes mostly from Celtic mythology. It is solidly built. Kay does good job weaving a story that is intimately tied to his mythology without making the story about the mythology. There are just enough novel idioms (such as “brightly woven” for “well done”) to mark Fionavar as distinct without making it a chore to learn them all.

The Plot

It’s a trilogy. To try to summarize the plot here would certainly spoil at least things from the first book. The broad plot points are standard fantasy fare from the Tolkien playbook: ancient, divine evil must be stopped; artifacts and ancient forces must be properly activated and marshaled; elves get involved. Don’t let that discourage you, though, because as soon as you start to zoom in, the plot points get more interesting. Elements of sacrifice and forgiveness are pervasive. Characters advance the story through sacrifice and error and fierce love.

The Cool Thing to Consider

Kay does something that ought to be impossible: he gets away with telling rather than showing. Constantly, and largely through variations on “impossible.” Despite being, as mentioned above, a sucker for doomed rides and last stands, I teared up all over the place through The Wandering Fire…and mostly at passages like this:

And grieving, grieving, Paul did so. Looking up, he saw Loren’s face distort with wildest hate. He heard the mage cry out then, tapping into his uttermost power, sourced in Matt Sören the Dwarf, channeled through the Whitebranch of Amairgen, and the very heart and soul of Loren Silvercloak were in that cry and in the blast that followed it.

(I could have also picked just about any passage involving horses or dogs. There are many of those to choose from.)

It really shouldn’t work. It’s not quite lampshading, but Kay consistently calls things “impossible,” or “uttermost” or “so deep it could not be named.” This is classic telling—it’s bigger than life simply because I say it’s bigger than life. We get showing, too, rending of garments and swinging of axes and yelling, but so much of Tapestry’s affect relies on the author telling us that things are, basically, indescribable—indescribably sad, indescribably brave, indescribably inspiring.

Kay manages to make this work, I think, through a bit of sleight of hand. I’m sure I’m missing pieces of it, but there are two main ways this telling sidesteps the usual “telling” problems:

First, Kay consistently centers the observation of the indescribable in a character. It’s Paul who, in the passage above, notes all the superlatives. Grounding the “telling” in a character puts it at just enough of a remove as to blunt the force of it. As a bonus, Kay also uses these moment to reinforce characterization.

Second, and far more subtle, is the general pattern of Tapestry’s language. The books draw heavily on mythology (no surprise). More importantly, they are told using elevated, formal language that echoes oral tradition. The word “and” appears frequently; most sentences in any given scene are linked directly to the next. There are plenty of spots one could change the “and” to “and, lo…” While centering the observations in a character blunts the obtrusiveness of the telling, the books’ tone takes the narrative a few steps away from mundane reality.

This combination could flatten everything, limit it to the two dimensions of the titular Tapestry. Instead, Kay is deft enough with his language, his characterization, and his allusions to mythology to elevate the whole story without losing depth. It’s myth-making, it’s world-building, but it’s also (as I commented to my spouse early in the first book) a little bit of a soap opera. The Canadian quintet all have their own hang-ups and backstories. Those contribute to the story’s depth without becoming the story, just as the myth-making contributes to the story without becoming its sole purpose.

It’s worth noting, too, that Kay does not use this telling when it comes to explaining Fionavar itself. The characters do have to explain things or have things explained to them, but that always happens in fragments. They get what they (and we as readers) need in the moment, explained by characters who understand it. There are no recitations of history, though history permeates the novels. Kay sometimes plays around with the timing of events to help achieve this—there are spots in the novel where we are tracking multiple characters simultaneously, where a scene starts at the same moment as a previous one, or halfway through the one that follows. It’s all deftly done, not quite walking a Gene Wolfe-level tight rope, but much better than most “mythic” fantasies.

What We Nick from this Novel

Suit your sins to your style. When you are writing something mythopoeic, you can get away with simply telling us how characters feel, with using superlatives as emotional bludgeons, with starting many, many sentences with ‘and.’ If you are writing noir, you can lean on the occasional cliche. Rules are not meant to be broken, but they do shift depending on what you’re aiming for. As we look at our own work, particularly in the revision process, we need to consider which rules are most important and which ones might not be relevant.

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