Autumn 1989, and I was well into my first semester of college. I hadn’t been the best student in high school, and I was repeating that same lackluster performance. The fire just hadn’t been lit. Yet.
I had taken a Journalism major and believed that I wanted to follow the news/editorial track. (I have no idea why, either.) I was miserable. Nothing about the curriculum excited me in the least.
Coincidentally I was midway through a fantasy series called The Fionavar Tapestry by Guy Gavriel Kay, a writer I’d never heard of. While much of the content from my college courses was leaving less than an impression, the fantasy trilogy was making me obsessed. I read and re-read each book, savoring every well-wrought detail and dramatic beat, something I’d never done before.
Now, I’ve railed against the less than marketable aspects of my English degree many times, and yes, while the choice has had a negative impact on some of my financial realities, in terms of my development as a writer and as a human, the choice was the best—if not only—choice I could have made. Given the same choice today, I wouldn’t change it.
So you could say with some veracity that I changed my major from Journalism to English because of Kay’s fantasy trilogy.
What was so special about this fantasy trilogy?
Understand that while I loved comics and Stephen King novels, I had never been a fan of High Fantasy (or what I’d call ‘imagined world’ fantasy). My aesthetic preference has always been for weird shit that happens in the real world, and while I loved The Hobbit, I had (insert sad face) never been able to get into The Lord of Rings, which I acknowledge as THE fantasy trilogy of all time even though I still don’t love it.
Kay, who had worked with Christopher Tolkien on The Silmarillion, makes a savvy move by using a Tolkien blueprint for Fionavar, but he also leverages that other seminal fantasy series The Chronicles of Narnia as the structural architecture for delivering his five protagonists to the other world. This allows the reader to discover the wonders of Fionavar along with the main characters, who all have fates written for them in this bright and lustrous land far from their own.
Also important for me, beyond the many wonderful characters and the lavish acts of heroism and adventure that I followed obsessively, was the grounded nature of the magic – how the mages relied on their human sources for their energy supply. This shaped the relationship between mage and source in ways that the best fantasy can exploit its genre in order to underscore and echo the complexities of our more mundane lives.
I’ve been afraid to re-read The Fionavar Tapestry in the, oh, twenty-five years since it changed the course of my academic career. I’m certain that the novels would hold up as fiction, but as passion-altering alchemy, I’m less certain that the magic is still there. Or if it is still there, I'm perhaps most afraid of what more that magic could do to alter the course of my life.