I wrote John O'Neill the other day that Guy Gavriel Kay's The Summer Tree was like Andre Norton's Quag's Keep run through The Silmarillion. Sure, it's a bunch of Canadian grad students not American gamers who get sent to a magical world, but it's a good enough analogy for my tastes.
For those not in the know, Kay hasn't always written fantasy set in slightly fictionalized mildly fantastic versions of the real world. His first books were the three volume series called The Fionvar Tapestry. Five Canadians are transported to the ur-world, Fionavar. A great war between the forces of light and those of darkness is brewing as the big bad dark lord is about to break free from a thousand years of captivity.
What separates it from so many of the other dark lord epics is the depth of Kay's knowledge and use of the corpus of Western myths on which to build his story. Fionavar, its gods, its heroes have their roots explicitly in the stories of Scandinavia and the Celtic world. He doesn't just strip the exteriors and slap them on his own creations. He gets down into the blood and sinews of Odin, Yggdrasil, the Wild Hunt, and so many other things we've read a thousand times before but manages to find new life in them. Like Henry Treece and Alan Garner before him, he found the darker currents flowing through those myths. He then mixes them into a pretty standard high fantasy setting to create something that was much tougher and blacker than was common in the mid-eighties.
Back in the late nineties, after not having read much fantasy for a decade, I deliberately threw myself back into the genre. Since most of my friends didn't read it and the state of the web was a far cry from what it is today, I picked up John Chute's massive Encyclopedia of Fantasy (a great investment at the time. Even today I wander through its pages regularly. Though nearly two decades out of date, it's still an important part of my library). I wanted something to hip me to some of the better, or at least more interesting, epic fantasy I'd missed. Kay's Fionavar books looked pretty alright. That he had served as Christopher Tolkien's right hand during the creation of The Silmarillion made it even more appealing.
So I read them and liked them. As familiar as the myths and legends he was playing with were, I liked how he used them. Rereading The Summer Tree this week I'm happy to write, so far I'm still liking them. I'm hoping the other two books, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road, hold up as well.