Read-along: The Wandering Fire – week two

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

We’re at the heart of our Wyrd & Wonder read-along of Guy Gavriel Kay’s The Wandering Fire. The five are back in Fionavar, caught in unending winter by Maugrim’s malice. As their allies gather to find a way to break the cold, wilder threads return to the Tapestry – but will they help or hinder?

A read-along is a group read with weekly discussions of set chapters (not a review, so ’ware spoilers from the get-go as this week’s chapters go deep!). Or fortnightly – a doggy houseguest and some very hot weather has slowed down my reading and blogging, so I’ve fallen behind.

This week I’m focusing on Chapters 7 through 11; Ariana of The Book Nook provided the excellent prompts for discussion.

After spending most of our time in Fionavar in and around Brennin or with the Dalrei, we are finally getting a closer look at Cathal and its king, and revisiting the intriguing Sharra. Thoughts on this culture and how it fits within Fionavar?

When we first met Sharra in The Summer Tree, I voiced how frustrated I was with the way Cathal is depicted as it felt exoticised and othered. A book later and Cathal is probably my least favourite thing about the books so far; although I appreciated the history lesson this week that filled in Cathal’s relationship with Brennin.

A closer look at Shalhassan was interesting. He’s a clever, manipulative man (who I suspect has stabbed more than his fair share of backs) and we meet him puffed up with his own pride. I don’t like him – he needed a comeuppance, which Aileron and Diarmuid promptly deliver – but then I find the constant exceptionalism of the princes of Brennin a little tiresome too. However, I did admire that Shalhassan’s response was to accept Aileron’s leadership and offer Cathal’s logistical as well as military support – sure, he’s still trying to impress, but he seems like a good ally. Just maybe don’t turn your back on him.

And do keep an eye on Sharra – two, when you can spare them – as one of the great beauties of the world turns out to make an exceptionally convincing soldier (#TeamÉowyn) and will definitely have a knife handy if you piss her off. She’s not a particularly well-developed character, but I enjoy her refusal to let the powerful men in her life dictate its terms to her.

Everyone has now met King Arthur! What do you make of this legend out of time and of the revelation about Jennifer?

Last time I read these books, this was probably my least favourite thing about them; this time, I’m rolling with it and enjoying the pathos (as I did when I first read the trilogy). It helps that Arthur is a deeply likeable character – wounded, gentle, brave, a lover of and beloved by dogs – and I have a great deal of sympathy and respect for how Jennifer is handling herself.

And then there was a comment Mayri made last week, which sent me diving down the rabbit hole of the massacre of the May Day babies (no, I haven’t read Malory. I should read Malory, should’t I?)

While I have some side-eye for setting out a stall rich in Celtic mythology and then borrowing Arthurian elements from the French romances, I have a newfound respect for Malory’s apparent subversion of mediaeval literary tropes about May – turning a time of romantic love into a time of death and betrayal. Bloody hell, sir. And the fact that Malory seems to have invented Arthur and Merlin’s dastardly plan to kill the babies? Well, we do encourage writers to make shit up, so well done that man for choosing to make a statement with his take on what was already a classic myth – and well done Kay for making it work even harder.

The result is that we get a Warrior who returns in our hour of need not because he is bound to the kingdom and invested in its preservation, but as a punishment for his terrible choice. Guinevere becomes a woman who loves him and chooses to betray him not (only) because Lancelot is hella sexy, but as further punishment. You have to admire Kay’s appetite for epic tragedy (and get very, very afraid for what that suggests; I too recall being deeply glad that Diarmuid isn’t Lancelot on my first reading).

All this has me thinking I’ve never taken a long or hard enough look at any of the myths Kay borrows for Fionavar – whilst acknowledging I don’t know any of the source material well enough to get the most out of it. But bravo to him for going all in. Speaking of which…

We need to talk about Kevin. What do you make of his role in this story, and the way all five of the friends seem to be playing out a role?

Yes, I’m taking the questions out of order! There’s many reasons to talk about Kevin, but I want to start with wait whose myths are we stealing now?

…because unlike many of the myths we’ve seen so far, the death of Liadon isn’t Celtic or Norse, it’s Greek. Fionavar is the first of all worlds, after all: why wouldn’t it reflect myths from further afield? While it leaves me with lingering regret that I don’t think we ever get influences from outside Europe (because Liadon’s death is far closer to the rites of Adonis than to those of Tammuz or Dumuzi that inspired the Greeks), I have to admire how well Kay integrates Adonis into his mythology. The idea of a handsome young lover sacrificing himself to Dana fits awfully well with what we’ve seen of the Goddess already – the blood sacrifices at the Temples, her intercession after Paul’s sacrifice on the Tree, the general notion that she loves you but you’ll get nothing for free – as does her intermingled love and grief in response.

Oh, Kevin. The bright, clever one with the big heart and the quick tongue, always there for his friends and yet somehow the one who finds himself on the outside in The Wandering Fire. The lover not the fighter, who swore vengeance against Maugrim and then wondered how on earth he was meant to achieve it.

You found a way, dude.

Sacrifice has played a big role in these first two books, with first Paul and now Kevin’s choices taking centre stage at pivotal points. I am suddenly deeply worried about Dave’s future and it’s been so long since I read book three that I can’t actually remember whether I should be.

And I’m still sobbing that Kevin’s last words to Paul were “Adios, amigo”. KEVIN.

That said, there is a level on which this development doesn’t entirely work for me (and oddly sits less comfortably than Jennifer!Guinevere, which is depicted in exactly the same way). While I don’t particularly mind that it comes out of nowhere – it’s good to have some unexpected twists in a tale that leans heavily on foreshadowing! – it does bother me that Kevin – as ignorant of Liadon as we are – suddenly seems to know what’s going on and what to do about it.

I’m required to handwave it away as him being in the grip of greater forces, and that is the bit that bothers me: because while the narrative often foregrounds prophecy, there’s also a recurring theme of free will. And that gets a little lost here. I want to see Kevin knowingly make the sacrifice (as Paul does; although yes, Paul massively underestimated what he’d signed up for) rather than feel drawn into it, acting out the role without a clear reflection on what and why and where is this going. While I don’t think he would choose not to make the sacrifice, I don’t feel we get to see him make that choice.

…which leads me neatly to the next question!

‘And far, far above all of this, outside of time, the shuttle of the Worldloom slowed and then was still, and the Weaver, too, watched to see what would come back into the Tapestry.’ Thoughts on Fate and the place of the Weaver in all of this?

I absolutely love that Fionavar is just crawling with (semi)divinities and in the end none of them have a handle on what mere mortals may choose to do. The idea of the Weaver at his Loom makes it all sound so carefully managed, but throwaway lines like this make it clear that NOPE, anything can happen. The Weaver may have chosen the threads to place in the Tapestry, but now it seems to be more of a documentary than a predictive weave. The Seer spends half her time frustrated that she can’t see – she sees what will happen, not what might happen (if I’ve been paying attention closely) – so if things aren’t set in stone she’s blind to it.

…which is why nobody knew whether they would choose to summon the Sleepers – and is part of what makes Darien so important. He is Maugrim’s son. He will surely be a powerful andain. What will he choose to do with that power?

On the other hand, while the mirror themes of self-sacrifice and choice (or free will) are looming much larger for me than Fate this read, Jen didn’t choose to be Guinevere – and I’m not sure whether Kevin chose to be Liadon – so destiny / a truth of souls seems to play into it too. Which doesn’t make me feel any better about Darien at all…

What did you make of Maidaladan and all that came with it? Re-readers, any new thoughts on this section?

Sexy party times are a recurring motif in Kay’s work. I don’t begrudge him that – it’s better than sexually-repressed or sexual assault fantasy – although I prefer the carnival at Ragosa in The Lions of Al-Rassan as for me the weird vibes of Maidaladan stray awfully close to eliding consent. Yes, arguably everybody is consenting because everybody has a sex overdrive; but I remain kinda squicky about having sexual desire imposed like this.

So my favourite aspect of it, unexpectedly, is Sharra!Diar – who accept the idea that their desire is not entirely their own tonight, but also confess that actually it is and let’s do that again and committing to one another.

First the fleeting lios alfar, and now the glimpses of the Paraiko; we have talked about myths and legends, but what do you think of the mythical creatures of Fionavar?

The lios alfar in Daniloth are so ethereal. They almost feel like the Elves of Tolkien’s imagination rather than the ones he actually put on page most of the time (let’s face it, the Elves of The Silmarillion are mostly bad choices and vendettas; and the Elves of The Hobbit are all silly songs) – the lios are more like the Elves Tolkien implies more often than he shows, like the Elves that move Sam to tears in the woods of the Shire; or Lothlórien.

I really enjoy the older elements coming to the fore this week with the lios and the Paraiko and the Wild Hunt. The Wild Hunt are so old even the lios don’t really know anything about them, but the Dwarves believe they moved the moon for better light by which to hunt. Do you have goosebumps? I have goosebumps – and then, just for good measure, we’re told that the Paraiko made the Hunters into Sleepers and crafted the Cauldron of Khath Meigol. And this ancient race – with the power to do such amazing things – are trapped in a cave by their enemies and dying in the dark?

Stars above, that’s terrifying. 

It’s a lovely bit of craft for me in the way this all comes together, sending the Ominous Vibe-o-meter soaring whilst adding history and really underlining how humanity are Johnny come latelies in Fionavar. We’ve heard about Iorweth coming from overseas not that long ago in the greater scheme of things, but now we have this a glimpse of what preceded them and it’s fascinating and wild with a side serve of the night is dark and full of terror.

I love it.

I’ve waffled on for far too long so I’ll leave it there for today – see you next week for the final chapters!

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

We’re zooming through this second volume, so next week will be our last week, covering from Chapter 12 through to the end of the book. Our discussion will be prompted by Peat Long on our Twitter community (DM me for an invite), with responses due whenever suits each reader – I’ll be posting towards the end of each week. You are welcome to join the discussion in the comments or in the Twitter community, but please be mindful of 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