The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay – Inevitability and Endings

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Guy Gavriel Kay is surely one of the greatest storytellers working in fantasy. The vividness of his prose and the power of his imagination is staggering. As I mentioned in earlier posts, the Fionavar Tapestry, one of his earlier works, was good but slightly less impressive in its first volume, becoming awesome in book two. But one of the marks of a great writer is how they end things, which brings us to The Darkest Road, the third and final Fionavar book.

Myth and Destiny

The mythical scope and texture of this series brought in ideas of fate from the very start, and much of The Darkest Road is occupied with paying off the destinies of its characters, exploring just how inevitable their fates are. In many ways it’s an exploration of freedom, and how free anyone can be in a world of active gods and complex relationships between different eras in time.

This adds a sense of weight to events, as the characters struggle with inevitability. Kay strikes a fascinating balance between fulfilling and denying destiny, giving his characters logical fates. There is a sense of inevitability even when they break with destiny, as Prince Diarmuid does in one of the most dramatic moments of the book. Such is the necessity to foreshadow and build momentum behind events, that this character’s act of defiant free will feels as much a foregone conclusion as anything that has actually been pre-ordained. His destiny lies in his personality, not the weaving of the world, something that reinforced my love of Diarmuid as one of the best characters in the series.

In a very real sense, this book was the most fitting way possible to end this series.

No, Not Freedom

But by fitting the tone of the series, and coming back to the issues raised in the first book, this left me feeling less satisfied than I hoped. This is a matter of personal taste. The grandiosely mythic seldom suits me, and I balk against the use of destiny to drive a story forward. I prefer to see characters making their own choices, not having them thrust upon them, and such was the sense of inevitability here, with even the moments of freedom permitted because of mythic forces, that I seldom felt like the characters were choosing, so much as they were following the path laid out for them.

There’s also a sense of distance that comes with this mythic sort of writing. I didn’t feel drawn into the inner lives of the characters to the extent I have with Kay’s other books, and that, together with the inevitability, made me care less.

Don’t Get Me Wrong…

Despite all those reservations, I enjoyed this book. It’s a reflection of just what a great writer Kay is that, even when he’s writing something that’s not to my tastes, he executes it so magnificently that I’m drawn along through every single page. I loved seeing the bond of friendship forged between Dave, Torc and Levon. It pained me when I thought terrible things were about to happen to Jennifer. I was left pondering questions of inevitability.

Is this Kay’s best book? No. It’s not even the best book in this series, which was the magnificent The Wandering Fire. But is it worth reading? Oh yes.

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On an unrelated note, my science fiction collection Lies We Will Tell Ourselves is free on Kindle for one last day today – why not go grab a copy?

4 thoughts on “The Darkest Road by Guy Gavriel Kay – Inevitability and Endings”

  1. This very much matches my feelings about it- there are things I love, but I feel that Kay is better when the magic is a little more subtle, the opposition more nuanced.

    I also have the same problem where a narrative line drives too directly in one direction – I find that when you have destiny and foreshadowing and all of that pointed the same way and it is not subverted, I don’t get along with it that well these days. Of course, these books are a little older ( and if you expect a subversion and get one, is that in fact non-subversive? ) and I allow GGK a lot because his writing is so unbelievably good, but I enjoy his more complex work a lot more.

    1. I wonder if part of the issue with telling stories in this mythological style is that it doesn’t sit well with our modern sensibilities. Freedom to shape our own is such a widespread value now that talk of destiny and stories with a sense of inevitability, which might have seemed satisfying in a bygone edge, now rub us up the wrong way, and that makes exploring that style of story hard.

      Regardless, I still have Tigana in my to-read pile, so I’ve got some recent Kay to look forward to.

      1. Tigana is widely regarded as his finest work, I think I slightly prefer the Sarantine books, but it is complex, deep and shadowy, full of contemporary and historical resonance. Ooh! Arbonne is wonderful too! And Under Heaven, and although the Last Light Of The Sun isn’t vintage Kay, it would be extraordinary for any other writer. I haven’t even read River Of Stars yet because I don’t like there to be no more.

        It’s good to have read Fionavar in that it is the first of all worlds and there are deliberate reflections of it in his other novels if you look out for them.

        1. It’s also interesting to see how the themes he’d address later start to appear here. There’s the obvious presence of arts – dance, music, story telling and so on. But it’s also interesting to see the way he shows power as something that combines the institutional and the very personal. Decisions become about personalities as well as rules in an interesting way.

          I’ve recently started listening to the History of Byzantium podcast, and my enjoyment of it has been enriched by having the setting evoked so vividly in the Sarantine Mosaic, especially the role and personalities of the sports supporting factions.

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