This pretty much never happens. Especially with epic/high fantasy, a genre for which my lack of love is pretty well known.* Hey, I'm as surprised as you are (though my love for Kay's A Song for Arbonne should have given us all a clue, I do suppose). And yet right now, I'm happily also in the middle of that Broken Empire stuff, too. It pays sometimes to ignore your prejudices, eh wot?
Anyway, I started off, a week or so ago, prepared not to like this one so much. Alarm bells started ringing right away as I settled down to read the first book, which starts off with a lengthy and detailed dramatis personae, a thing that always makes me roll my eyes because it so often suggests to me that either someone doesn't trust me enough to keep track of all the characters contained in the story such a list precedes, or someone's publishers don't think the author did a good enough job making said characters vivid and distinct enough for anyone to be able to keep track without a handy guide. Either way, my hackles go up, and yes, I had the same eyebrow raising experience the first time I cracked open Dorothy Dunnett, but her books are so damned intricate and complex that those lists turn out to be (occasionally) necessary even for an attentive reader because hundreds of pages sometimes go by between encounters with some characters in Dunnett, oh yes. But Dunnett has been an exception for me in this, as in so many regards.
Guy Garviel Kay, turns out, is another. Except I didn't need, ever, to refer to the dramatis personae, because as in Arbonne, so in Fionavar (to which I'd seen a reference in Arbonne as "Fionvarre" and had been wondering about since, to my happiness): Kay's characters, both his own creations and those he borrows from mythology and legend, are alive and distinct and unforgettable and captivating. As is their world, their struggle, their story.
The trilogy's focus is on five of them, more or less, young university students who come from our world (and from Toronto, my very favorite city), who attend together a lecture on Celtic myth by a world-famous expert and then find themselves whisked into said expert's company after the lecture under the guise of showing him a much better time than would all those dreary academics who are expecting him at their post-lecture do. But it is the lecturer, who turns out to be a powerful mage from another world named Loren Silvercloak (and yes, that name gagged me at first, as so many names in the d.p. gagged me, because I hate epic fantasy, remember?), who whisks them away -- to another world, where they are "needed" as ceremonial guests for a king's golden jubilee. By magic, he and his "source"**, a dwarf named Matt Soren, transport the five to Fionavar, the first of all worlds, kind of like C.S. Lewis' Aslan's Country, the world of which all other worlds are just sort of imperfect copies echoing its motifs and patterns.***
And then it turns out, of course, that the Five -- handsome, playful, emotional Kevin; helpful, kind, wise Kimberly; wounded, stand-offish, moody Paul; beautiful, proud Jennifer; and big, strong oddball Dave -- aren't just there for a party. There are roles and very important work for all of them to fulfill in Fionavar, if they're willing, or maybe even if they're not.
And those roles are deeply archetypal, a Jungian parade of quests and tasks and ritual enactments and sacrifices that could all get so hokey, so in-your-ribs and on-the-nose, but don't because Guy Gavriel Kay is some kind of wizard. Even someone who knows the archetypes he's playing with very, very well has surprises in store for her, reading these novels. They might not be plot surprises per se, for such a reader; the surprise is how deeply felt and emotional these developments can be, how necessary they are to make the overall story work, and how they raise lumps in the throat, make tears sting in the eyes such that one could all but short out her ebook reader. Excuse me for a moment.
And yes, the girls' stories matter just as much as, sometimes more than, they boys', and no, it's not because the girls strap on boobplates and are suddenly strong enough to wield giant claymores or because they develop preternatural skills at archery or in any way, really, do anything remotely like what the boys do. Kay laughs at the Bechdel test. Kay understands women and men and honors them both. Kay writes people. Extraordinarily.
And he writes extraordinary fight scenes, including one single battle between a larger-than-life hero and a giant unkillable demon that goes on for some ten pages and is riveting not just for the well-described action but for the scene's staggering emotional content, deft shifts of point of view, and barely-hinted at future importance. As I said over on Goodreads after finishing that scene, "Jesustitsfucksake, Lancelot!"
Yes, that Lancelot. Arthur and Cavall are in this, too, drawn in from their eternal twilight afterlife just as Kevin and Kim and Paul and Jennifer and Dave were from theirs, but not quite given their interiority. Kay knows well enough to leave his most archetypal characters as just that, archetypes, icons, who nonetheless are integral parts of this story and who interact with Kay's own characters in a myriad of ways without in any way ceasing to be icons to be regarded with awe and reverence. Neat trick, that.
I'm still in awe myself from the experience of reading these books. And this is a trilogy with a flying unicorn in it, for Pete's sake.
And read these books, if you haven't.
*Nor are those detailed in that sonnet the only reasons I generally roll my eyes at the genre, as I'm sure my long-term readers figured out long ago, and as I'm sure I've made even more clear in this post.
**I'm not going to get into the details here, but magic in Fionavar is different, yo. As in it takes two, a mage and a second person who is the source of his energy, to do it. And the relationship between a mage and his source is a powerful one even when they are not already otherwise best friends or lovers or both or all of the above, i.e. it's quite fraught.
***Look, the trilogy is referred to as a tapestry. So much weaving/fibercraft metaphor in this. So much.