Read-along: The Darkest Road – week four

The Darkest Road: A Wyrd & Wonder Read-along

All good things come to an end – or at least, every read-along must. We’ve completed our journey through Fionavar; this week, I’m discussing the emotional finale as our travellers reach the end of The Darkest Road. Just a few spoilers, then…

A read-along is a group read with weekly discussions of set chapters (not a review). This week we’re discussing the final two parts of the final book of The Fionavar Tapestry under the expert guidance of Peat Long.

The arcs of the sons of Ailell and the Dark Rose of Cathal have received a fiery culmination as Diarmuid leaves the people he loved most deeply and complicatedly behind. Tell me of your reactions, your thoughts, and what you make of this three at the ending.

My relationship with Diar is complicated. For all the ways he irritates me – so glamorous, so cocksure, so annoyingly capable – he’s a brilliant character who I also love. He is undeniably clever and brave; he has earned the loyalty of his band; but I am glad we get glimpses of some quieter, heartfelt moments between him and Sharra where he shows he has insecurities under his public show of confidence. His sacrifice has always felt right to me: as big and bold a statement as any, done not to be the hero of the moment but rather to be the sacrifice in the Warrior’s place. It’s so easy to dismiss the glittering younger Prince, but he runs deep. I have always felt awful for Sharra, a lonely falcon after all.

I’m also glad we see Aileron’s love for his brother at the end; it’s only ever shown in small flashes, and who can blame him for finding his little brother as frustrating as he clearly does? But I don’t feel that Aileron gets an arc in the end – after the build up of him claiming the crown and the war at the end of The Summer Tree and his fierce leadership through The Wandering Fire and on the road north, he just sort disappears in the final battle. Diar gets his huge final moments; Aileron… is seen in the thick of the fight from a distance, having given risky orders that pay off – and he never really re-emerges in the aftermath. It’s like the narrative loses interest in him and Sharra after Diar’s death, and I think they both deserve better.

It’s big old battle time, with lots of twists and tragedies and all. Anything you wish had been done different… even no battle at all?

I mostly like that at the end of the trilogy, three of the remaining four travellers still have absolutely no place being in a battle at all. I am so glad that Paul is basically rubbish and has to be babysat on the field by Carde and Erron; and while I hate that the women are all gazing helplessly from a hill and bandaging wounds (sigh), I don’t hate that they didn’t magically acquire rad fighting skills.

While it hadn’t occurred to me, I’m now loving the idea of a completely different ending where the big battle was skipped because Darien never got trapped in Daniloth and made it to Starkadh sooner. I suspect even I would have found that a bit of an anticlimax though – especially after the slaughter at the Adein.

So sure it is all high tragedy and maybe it does all feel a bit inevitable and a bit neat, but that’s largely because the warp has been laid out so clearly across the books. How could we not see Imraith-Nimphais and the Wild Hunt one last time; and how could Leila and Finn’s connection not be pivotal? Having already mentioned Aileron – the only other character I feel gets a little shortchanged is Galadan. He and his wolves get lost in the crowd here until his final desperate gambit. Somehow I expected more of (and for) him, I guess – and I don’t entirely buy his redemption at the end. I think I would rather he had stuck to his haughty guns.

What were your feelings at the end of Darien’s search for acceptance? And if you haven’t mentioned him already, what of the other child on The Darkest Road – what of Finn?

Oh, Darien. There’s a very clear narrative in which he seeks only love and acceptance, and fears his power / nature (embracing it mostly when he’s swept up in external fear or rage). It’s all very relatable. Darien is ultimately swayed by examples of love and sacrifice – very on-theme for the trilogy! – and the slow dawning realisation that he cares in return: his choice is not just about him. I also appreciate that in the end his decision doesn’t really reflect Jennifer’s insistence that he not be influenced – he can’t help but be influenced by the encounters he’s had. In the end, though, I pity Darien rather than liking him; so while it may feel unfair that he has to die to save the worlds while Galadan gets to go learn how to find joy, it’s a soft sadness rather than heartbreak.

Finn, on the other hand… sure, there’s a tragic inevitability here – the Wild Hunt have only ever been bound when the child that goes before them fell from his horse – but it hurts largely because it never feels like Finn has a choice. He is called to the Darkest Road and he obeys; he dies (in an admittedly grand sacrifice that saves all the worlds) when he heeds Leila’s call. Big points all round for love and sacrifice, but my word this trilogy is hard on its youth (thank heavens for Imraith-Nimphais and her take on only each other at the end extending to saving her beloved).

I do like the way that the narrative leads us to Maugrim’s unravelling – the Tapestry’s version of no man am I if you will – and there are hints along the way if you know what to watch out for. I would wonder that nobody in Fionavar saw the potential, but I’m terrible at riddles (the utter despair of our DM when our entire party spent a whole campaign unable to figure out that ‘where beauty lies’ was in the eye of a beholder) so I have no high ground to question from.

At the heart of this story were the Five, even when reduced to Four. As we say goodbye to them, what do you think of who they’ve been, how they’ve grown, and how they end?

Big shout out to my man Dave who has been emotionally reconfigured since we first met. I love his journey, which feels incredibly down to earth – he may sleep with goddesses and carry the horn of world-ending summoning, but he’s largely concerned with swinging a big axe and protecting his new brothers. His transformation from grumpy Dave with the (bag of) chip(s) on his shoulder to heroic Davor of the Axe who knows when not to take things personally and to be there for others is a joy. Plus he gets to leave his immortal mark on Fionavar by naming an andain Kevin.

I enjoy Paul too, and the way he is slowly revealed to us across the trilogy. I don’t feel he changes that much, but we come to understand him better. He’s a complicated bloke who takes everything on himself – even with the misplaced guilt stripped away – and if I don’t always approve of his manner, I can rarely argue with his underlying motivations or his sense of responsibility. I appreciate that his sharp edges don’t get softened so much as he finds someone who mirrors and understands him; and that his connection with Jaelle feels very much theirs, not one imposed on them as the chosen of Dana and Mörnir.

I feel Jen gets a rough deal in book one and I hate almost everything about her as Guinevere. The inclusion of Arthurian myth makes intellectual sense, but I’d be far more interested in an Arthur who echoed Welsh mythology than the mediaeval English and French romances. I grew up on the latter, but I’ve also grown out of them, and they’ve always felt like an awkward inclusion here. That said, thank heavens for all three of them – and Cavall – getting to sail off together. Hooray!

I like Kim from the start – she’s clever and impish and compassionate – and she gets no choice in the terrifying central role that is thrust upon, but she shoulders it and cracks on. As I said last week, I quite like that she eventually rejects the Baelrath in a way that feels true to her nature; and I like that it has such immediate consequences, stripping her of one of her sources of power. But she doesn’t diminish and go into the West at the end – she is still a Seer, and with Ysanne’s admonition that our world might need one I do wonder whether Kay was trying to leave the door open to a sequel or spin off (Ysabel is a sidequel of sorts, but not about Kim or Fionavar).

Final thoughts on everything else… but particularly what you think of the whole series now it’s done; its themes, its style, its relationship to other fantasy works, and anything else of interest

I have a deep nostalgic love of this series and it will always have a place on my shelf even though it sometimes irritates me with its narrative choices and its pacing. I love Kay’s flowery style and his shameless if erratic cherry-picking of myths and tropes, and enjoy his characters and world-building even while I wish there was more of it. The Tapestry feels very rushed to me now – it embraces epic scope within surprisingly few pages – and consequently I find it has less emotional resonance book on book. But I admit I shed a quiet tear at the end, if not when I expected (I cried as the threesome sailed away, even though I’ve been railing against them this read).

That said, I have fought myself to stick with The Darkest Road – not because of the book per se, but because my reading heart is enjoying fast, punchy, popcorn space opera and creeping, atmospheric horror over tragic epic fantasy. So I apologise for my sometimes grumpy responses to this final book – I stand by my comments, but I know that in a different mood I’d have had more positive things to say!

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.

Thank you to everyone who joined this adventure through myth and fancy, Light and Dark – see you again soon on our next fantastic read-along.

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