‘The Summer Tree’ and When I Stopped Reading Fantasy

May 21, 2014 at 7:00 am 3 comments

Part of my quest to read as many unread books on my shelves as possible before moving.

FionavarmapIn high school, I was a major fantasy reader. In fact, fantasy novels were pretty much all I read and, when I wasn’t reading them, I wrote my own. Practically my entire literary experience at the time involved ingesting or creating epic series about invented lands far away, made-up creatures, and the humans inevitably at the heart of each story.

But then, entirely unintentionally, I stopped. I went away to college, stopped having so much spare time, and fantasy novels paid the price. Almost overnight, I went from devouring Robert Jordan’s vast Wheel of Time series to focusing my reading energies elsewhere—on books for class, on nonfiction as my love of history blossomed, and (thanks to an introduction from my first-year college roommate) on some fan fiction, the only thing light enough that I had sufficient left-over energy to read during those first semesters.

Years passed and I never really thought about why I stopped reading High Fantasy. And I certainly didn’t put a formal end-date on it or think of it as a phase. I still loved fantasy. Didn’t I?

Alas, as it turns out, I don’t.

At some point, probably during my Harry Potter PABD days some years ago, I started scrounging around for some good fantasy to rekindle my love of the genre. I reasoned that, since there was no reason why I stopped in the first place, post-MA was as good a time as any to restart.

During that search, Guy Gavriel Kay’s acclaimed Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, starting with The Summer Tree, was recommended to me. In it, university students are taken from Toronto into a magical world where, of course, there is all kinds of strife and trouble afoot that they are drawn into and must solve.

I ran out and bought The Summer Tree right away, but then it sat on my shelf for years. My mood never seemed quite right to dive in. But now that I’m moving and going through books as fast as I can, mood be damned, The Summer Tree was high on my “read before I move” list.


So I started reading it. And I only got about 10 pages in before coming to the sad realization that the end of my High Fantasy reading days wasn’t as unintentional as I thought. I was, quite frankly, bored. It seemed as good a fantasy novel as any (and the general consensus seems to be that it is one of the absolute best of the genre), but I just couldn’t make myself care.

And, as I forced myself onward, I found myself growing actively annoyed. The college students barely raised any sort of fuss at being singled out and transported to the realm of High Fantasy by some Gandalfy figure named Loren. The prime minister was painfully obviously corrupt. One of the students was clearly having serious psychological problems after the crossing, but no one in the book seemed to notice or care. And why the devil didn’t any of them find it particularly remarkable that, suddenly, other worlds exist and that they are transported to one of them? Shouldn’t there are least be some sense of wonder or, even more likely, worry?

Eventually I couldn’t go on. I did not finish The Summer Tree, but I also didn’t need to do so to know that my fantasy days are behind me. There’s always been something formulaic about the genre and, while that was comforting ten years ago, it now makes me yawn. While realism isn’t something I’ve ever craved in my fantasy novels (bring on the talking animals!), I realized that real emotions and realistic reactions to events are something I do want and are usually just not a part of High Fantasy.

Similarly, female protagonists are few and far between and, when they do exist, more often than not are macho lady-warriors, icy queens, or vague mystics. I’m reminded of Natalie Portman’s comments about “strong female characters” a few years back:

“I want [female characters] to be allowed to be weak and strong and happy and sad – human, basically. The fallacy in Hollywood is that if you’re making a ‘feminist’ story, the woman kicks ass and wins. That’s not feminist, that’s macho. A movie about a weak, vulnerable woman can be feminist if it shows a real person that we can empathize with.”

That’s what I want in fantasy novels and it isn’t something usually being served up.

Map of Bookholm, (c) Walter Moers

Map of Bookholm, (c) Walter Moers

So, as I turn away from High Fantasy, I find myself recognizing what it was I liked about the genre to begin with: imagination. And, happily, with the publication of authors like Neil Gaiman, Ali Shaw, Walter Moers, and Linda Medley, there is now a thriving genre of imaginative fiction, stories that have magic and adventure, but mostly skip the dragons and machismo. So, going forward, I’ll be focusing my reading energies there and avoiding the oft-tread (and thus oft-repetitive) paths of High Fantasy.

Anyone in the market for a copy of The Summer Tree?


Entry filed under: Fantasy. Tags: , , , , .

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3 Comments Add your own

  • […] plaything. She’s allowed to be an actual human being, in other words, instead of either a machismo vision of female warriordom or some swoony princess. A+ to A Darker Shade just for Lila Bard […]

  • […] I loved the whole book. Yes, it gets mighty cosmic and very High Fantasy towards the end (dragon warning), but somehow it all works. I don’t want to spoil any of it […]

  • 3. ksvilloso  |  October 16, 2016 at 11:08 pm

    I know this is an old post, but I came upon it after a conversation with a friend. As an avid fantasy reader, I totally agree that the genre is lacking in some areas. I think modern authors now are aware and trying their best to make some changes, although it is not the easiest thing to do when you’re juggling all the other areas in fantasy.

    It’s interesting you would mention GGK’s work as his later works are way more interesting and involves well-rounded characters. That said, I have never been able to get through his Fionavar tapestry. It’s worth giving Tigana or The Lions of Al-rassan a chance. Remember, The Summer Tree is from the 80s.

    I am also a fantasy author and am trying my best to create real–not just strong–female characters. It’s difficult to consciously do this after a lifetime of consuming media where they’re not.

    You should definitely give modern takes on the genre a try.


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