Review: The Fionavar Tapestry

I’ve previously reviewed A Song for Arbonne by Guy Gavriel Kay, and concluded there that I would be reading more of him in the future. My good friend Tina from critique group loaned me Kay’s trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry and I found it equally as impressive as my first excursion into Kay’s writing.

Probably the thing that impressed me most about this trilogy was its interactions with the typical cliches of fantasy. If I told you I was reading a series with the following elements in it, what pops into your mind:

  • A world, Fionavar, which is the central world in a sprawling multiverse

  • A dark lord, bound for a thousand years after a devastating war that has shaped the world

  • Five people from our world, magically transported to Fionavar, where each is revealed to have special traits for the war against the newly freed dark lord

  • Exiled princes and kings coming home to their thrones

  • Heroes of old reincarnated to fight in this, the most critical of all wars

If you’re reaction to that list is anything like mine would be, you probably wouldn’t be inclined to pick up the series. Each of those ideas has been pounded to death in thousands of D&D-derived, poorly written, door-stop fantasy novels. The list reeks of cliche and shallow stories relying on these concepts to give it any sliver of weight.

And here’s the amazing thing–it worked. I read the series and watched as Kay breathed life into each of these old, worn ideas. Each of the characters from our world had something unique to contribute in Fionavar, but they were fully fleshed-out characters first. Kay worked with all these common ideas, but never once fell back to relying on the idea itself to lend the story power. He made you care about the people, made the world come alive, and it didn’t matter that summarizing the series lends a set of hackneyed tropes overused ever since Tolkien.

I’ve heard it said many times before that as long as you understand a fiction writing rule well enough, you can break it. Writers like Kay and Wolfe (whose duology The Knight and The Wizard struck many of the same chords for me) can take the most cliched idea and make it dance before us. Man, I hope some day I can do that!