Read-along: The Wandering Fire – week one

Banner: The Wandering Fire - A Wyrd & Wonder Read-along

Welcome back to our Wyrd and Wonder read-along of Guy Gavriel Kay’s epic portal fantasy The Fionavar Tapestry. The Summer Tree provoked much discussion back in May; we’re picking up the thread with The Wandering Fire. With the Unraveller free to work his malice, our brave heroes must master their powers and find their place in the story…

A read-along is a group read with weekly discussions of set chapters (not a review, so ’ware spoilers from the get-go!). This week we’re focusing on Chapters 1 through 6, and I had the honour of setting the questions.

What do you make of Jennifer’s decisions regarding Darien …and what do you think has happened to him?

This week opened with a punch to the gut and then just kept on going. It’s months since Kim – with Jaelle’s aid – ripped our five travellers out of Fionavar to save Jennifer from Maugrim. Trapped in our own world, unaware of what is going on back in Fionavar, you can sense their frustration and the tension. Ironically, Dave is now the most laidback of the lot; he’s passed the big exam, got a work experience placement, bought a nice suit and learned to laugh at himself.

But he’s the only winner from the first round in Fionavar.

Kay seems determined to make Jen’s road as hard as possible, but I admire Jennifer’s determination to keep her baby as a way to defy Rakoth (although I wonder whether her Catholic upbringing plays a role too). I felt a little bit of an idiot for being so mad at the pressure the others put on her not to – what right do they have? How can they judge what is best for her? – until the penny finally dropped. Oh right. The dark god’s heir. I can see why that would put the wind up them all.

But Jennifer doesn’t plan to stick around to see the consequences of her choice.

So if I started out slightly mad at most of the gang, I ended up slightly mad at all of them because it turns out that my instinctive response is that if you choose to have a baby, you should want to raise it. On the other hand, surviving childbirth isn’t – or shouldn’t be – something Jennifer can control so I mostly took her death wish as a sign of her entirely understandable trauma and focused on being mad at Paul for pushing Jen on her choice even though Kim has already dreamed his name. Let the lady be, Paul. She’s made up her mind.

It’s been long enough since I’ve read The Wandering Fire that I had forgotten the circumstances of Darien’s birth. If Jennifer and Paul knocking on Vae’s door feels a little narratively neat, it’s satisfyingly so (if I don’t think about it too hard) – a nod to the conceit that they are all threads in a tapestry; weaving in and out and across one another.

While I’m glad Jennifer does survive childbirth and begins to re-engage with the world – and gains distance enough to be deeply cynical about all these men swearing vengeance on her behalf (gentlemen, do you even realise in doing this you’re making it all about you? Put a lid on your frustration and rage and ask what she needs) – I remain a little conflicted that she leaves Darien behind. But I’m not too fast to judge Jen here – after all, she’s in no state to create a warm, loving environment in which to raise a child. And I suppose that keeping him with her – in any world – would reveal him to any watching eyes (o hai Loren, I see how Darien is the one secret she kept from you), so leaving him with an almost random stranger is a good move. Besides, the secret children of gods being raised by obscure parents is a time-honoured trope, of course; here’s hoping he turns out to be a big damn hero.

And at least she leaves him with compassionate Vae, whose big heart breaks me. Of course she will take in a motherless son; knowing whose son he is, she notes simply that he will need to be loved a great deal, and promises to try. I’m not crying, you’re crying (and knowing what is to come, I’m crying some more. Consider yourself warned, I’m going to cry the whole way through this read-along).

From tapping the avarlith to tapping a source to the uncontrollable magic of the Baelrath and the erratic blessings of a God – what are your thoughts on the magic systems of Fionavar?

A solid magic system can be the backbone of an epic fantasy. Pshaw, says Guy Gavriel Kay, why just one? Dream a little bigger darling.

I’d never really stopped to think about this before, but Fionavar is pure magical chaos and I love it. The mages feel so ordered – all capital letters and by-laws – but really they’re a bunch of blokes with sentient batteries (thanks Peat, never not seeing it that way now) who didn’t like being beholden to blood sacrifice (which… is fair enough). The priestesses are a terrifying sacrifice cult; and if I don’t really grasp what the avarlith is (what does earth root even mean), I appreciate their magic as a ritualistic mirror to the mannered mages, their power borrowed from the earth and by extension the goddess. The shamans of the plains have to sacrifice their sight to gain their visions, but the results are an eerie power whose limits are unclear.

…and that’s just the tip of the iceberg. None of them claim to understand (or trust) wild magic – and to be fair, the Baelrath seems to do its own thing, and Eilathen was pretty terrifying too – just as the only rules for the gods seems to be that they don’t get their hands dirty. Create a magical murder unicorn? Sure, if you feel the occasion calls for it. Go stomp on the Wolflord and stop him kidnapping and terrorising people? No can do, sorry, but I’ve got a bloke I can send round. He’ll figure something out if his life is on the line.

It seems appropriate for the first of all worlds to have a bit of all sorts going on, but I like that it also works fairly harmoniously together. Nobody is saying that anybody else’s magic is bad and wrong (okay, other than the Temple, nobody is saying that anybody else’s magic is bad and wrong) and none of it feels powerful enough to produce evil witchkings.

…although, other than world-hopping and foresight, we haven’t really seen what can be done with (human) magic, have we? Huh. We have all these different ways of working magic without a lot of clarity on what it can be used for. It ought to bother me more than it does; but I guess I grew up on Tolkien, where magic is implied an awful lot more than its ever shown.

So perhaps it’s more magic than magic systems – but that suits me fine.

And there is a common thread: a sacrifice of some sort must be made to access power – even the wild magic comes at some sort of cost, directly or indirect.

Where The Summer Tree established the legends of Fionavar, The Wandering Fire is full of Celtic motifs. How do you feel about the blending of fictional and folkloric inspiration?

Yes, this whole question is just an excuse for Arthur reaction gifs, but before we get to him…

I grew up reading Alan Garner’s The Weirdstone of Brisingamen, another folkloric mash-up of Celtic and Norse legends, and I loved it. It was probably inevitable that I would love The Fionavar Tapestry as it channels many of the same myths and is just as dark in tone (Garner has never written comfortable – or comforting – books). But this read-along, it’s Fionavar’s created history I find myself enjoying the most: the casual detail put into the craftsmen whose art decorates the palace in Brennin; the Temple and its rites; the tragic myths that inspire its characters (Nilsom and Aideen; Amairgen and Lisen and Galadan).

Still, when the mash up works, it’s brilliant – and a lot of it does still work for me. Folkloric fantasy and epic fantasy were my first two fantasy loves, and Kay is serving up a rich dish that combines them. I’m not going to talk too much about the otherworldly lios, except to note that I love the extent to which they are defined by music and light. The inclusion of familiar deities doesn’t bother me at all, largely because the Huntress, the Hunter, the Earth / Moon goddess, the Thunder god are such familiar archetypes. Likewise, I love the reimaginings of familiar mythical artefact – Ginserat’s wardstones don’t feel like the Weirdstone of Brisingamen, although both are shining blue stones that tell you someone is still asleep; the cauldron of Khath Meigol (about which the less said the better until the end of this book); and – Garner’s doing, again – I will always thrill to caves of sleepers to be called forth when the time is right.

In fact, I’ll forgive a heap when it’s reimagined and woven into the folklore of a secondary world, but have 5 Canadians sneak into Stonehenge (…which has pressure sensors, apparently? AHAHAHAHAHA) to wake up Uther Pendragon so they can summon Arthur at Glastonbury and my eyes are rolling like Catherine wheels (yes, complete with sparks). Don’t get me wrong, I love a bit of Arthuriana, but… not like this, apparently.

In spite of the absurd introduction, I love Arthur as a character. He has immediate dignity and gentleness that is at odds with him being called The Warrior, doomed for an unforgivable deed (although we’re going to need to talk about that at some point). I admire that he holds no grudge against Kim for calling him back; he’s all duty and strength and set to show Aileron what being a war king really means (yes Aileron, you were a bit petulant this week and that’s okay – you’ve had months and no surprise the pressure is getting to you – but get ready to be schooled, okay?)

Other musings

This week has been hella distracting in meatspace, so not a lot to add except that I want to come back to Paul. I really like that he has no more idea what it means to be Lord of the Summer Tree than we do, but that he just runs with it and throws the title around like a weapon in its own right. It’s almost as if he thinks that if he pretends to believe it means something, it might mean start to mean something, because he’s sure it should. And of course it does: he just can’t access it except in extremis (although I do wish the poor tavern girl hadn’t had to be sacrificed to Fordaetha to prove a point).

I also love the simmering tension between Paul and Aileron; the man who will always now stroll into the palace like he owns the place, and the bloke who actually rules there. And – and this may be my favourite thing this read-along (where Paul is concerned) – the reluctant respect between Paul as an avatar of the God and Jaelle as the first servant of the Goddess. The scene at the Tree makes this inevitable, perhaps, but it doesn’t feel easy or obvious for these two personalities, and I love that we see them building a tentative alliance.

Threads for the Tapestry

But wait, this is a read-along – what did everybody else have to say?

Links will be added once they go live.

Don’t see your blog / handle here? I may have missed you are joining us – drop a comment or link back to this post and I’ll add you to the link-up.

Reading Schedule

Everyone is free to read at their own pace, but we will only discuss set chapters each week to give everyone a chance to keep up:

  • Week 1: Chapter 1 – 6 – hosted here at There’s Always Room For One More
  • Week 2: Chapter 7 – 11 – hosted Ariana @ The Book Nook
  • Week 3: Chapter 12 to end – hosted by Peat Long

Questions will be posted each weekend on the Twitter community (DM me for an invite). I’ll be posting my responses towards the end of each week (having missed my goal of Thursday with my very first post), but you are free to choose any day that suits your schedule.

If you don’t have a blog, you can join the discussion via the comments on the week’s host blog or in the Twitter community (please be mindful of spoilers for other readers). Wherever you post, always avoid spoilers for future weeks if you read ahead or have read it before!

Art credit: banner features the gorgeous cover art created by Janny Wurts & Dan Maitz for the Canadian editions