I was but a wee little fetus when this book was published in 1984, so I should probably give it some leeway—it was 38 years ago, times have changed, this probably seemed great back in the day, the genre hadn’t evolved yet, blah blah blah—but I don’t want to, and I’m not going to. This book is the sort of stuff new writers churn out when they are getting their own voices under them, almost nothing but imitation of things the author loves with small hints of their own ideas peppered throughout, but it’s not the kind of stuff that should ever get published. This book also has the unpleasant bonus of reading like something written by a smart white dude who thinks he’s even smarter, believing everything he’s placing on the page is absolute gold. oh yeah i’m gonna do this PLONK PLONK and then this CLACK CLACK CLACK oh yeah this is great i’m a genius PLING. (Those are typewriter sounds, FYI.)
I’m not actually going to summarize this book beyond “five Canadians in their early twenties are brought to a magical world by a wizard” because when I tell you the things Kay stole from, you will probably be able to guess quite a bit of the plot and worldbuilding elements yourself. The biggest and most obvious source of “inspiration” for ol’ GGK was Tolkien’s Middle Earth. He cribs plots, languages (he uses “Anor” to mean tower, for example, a world Tolkien made up), character types, and names. He tries to evoke the sense of world and mythology that Tolkien seemed to do so effortlessly, but he earns none of it. He’s constantly dropping names of people and places we have no context for, and reveals that are probably important mean almost nothing emotionally because he hasn’t provided the background or space for them to grow in the reader’s mind. He also pulls from the most ridiculous mish-mash of sources, and none of it makes any sense at all: Norse, English, Irish, Welsh, Greek, and other mythologies; plots and names from Lewis’s Narnia (the Aslan/Stone Table equivalent here is unbelievably obvious, as is him naming Fionavar’s biggest city
Cair Paravel Paras Derval. There are literally too many parallels to many other things for me to name; I would be here all day and into the weekend.
All this to say, alluding to other works like this isn’t necessarily wrong (cough) but the actual experience of reading it wasn’t pleasant, because GGK didn’t do a good job melding them all together and telling the story. The one time in the book that I felt actually engaged in the story was when one of the five, Dave (and what a name for a fantasy character), finally makes a reappearance halfway through the book, and we spend an actual significant amount of time in one place with characters having actual conversations and building relationships, and there isn’t so much of the constant name-dropping and allusions, just a focus on the actual story. It is not a coincidence that’s the strongest part of the book. Even the biggest emotional climax of the book, when SPOILERS Paul dies on the third day tied to The Summer Tree and finds absolution from the goddess Dana for his part in the death of his ex-girlfriend, whose death is part of the reason he’s suicidal in the first place END SPOILERS is undercut, because we have spent so little time with Paul that his most dire moment just doesn’t hit that hard, nor do we really stand in awe of the The Summer Tree or the blood moon or whatever, for the same reason. There’s no depth here, no sense that this world already existed and Kay just discovered it, like you get with Tolkien. The language of the writing gets in the way, too. Elevated “high fantasy” language here just feels performative. Not to mention, really? Everyone in this entire world speaks English?
I really was enjoying myself more towards the end after Dave’s interlude with the
Rohirrim Dalrei (who also have uncomfortable shades of indigenous peoples), maybe even enough to give this a 2.5 and bump it up to three. And then came that ending, in which the book concludes with an extended SPOILERS rape scene of one of the main characters, Jennifer, who is essentially in the book to get ogled by male characters, and to be raped by Sauron Rakoth Maugrim END SPOILERS. This scene was a culmination of the uncomfortable ways GGK often treats his female characters. In sum: icky. It felt extremely unnecessary and gross, especially the bit where the bad guy shapeshifts into SPOILERS Jennifer’s dad right before he rapes her for the first time END SPOILERS (!). What. The. Hell. Even if all of this is necessary to the plot, which I unfortunately think it is, we didn’t have to see it on page.
Anyway, I mostly disliked this, on the verge of hating it because of the glimpses of stuff I could see around all the posturing and alluding, and all the trappings that GGK clearly thought needed to be in here but which just get in the way.
I’ll probably read at least the second book since I own all three, and it’s only two hundred pages, and we’ll see after that. Long heavy sigh.