Tales involving fairy folk haven’t reached popular fantasy book lists for a while. There have been a few young adult renditions in recent years, and The Dresden Files by Jim Butcher has certainly given adult fantasy readers a new interpretation of fairies, but stand-out novels solely about the Fae have been few and far between. The Old Ways by R.K. Summers has become the most recent addition to that rare and illustrious list.
The story centers around Thomas Rhymer, a seemingly normal young man living a mundane but peaceful existence with his mother and his younger sister, Alissa. Although the characters could have easily taken a backseat to the plot in this some of semi-high fantasy, Thomas is fully fleshed out with flaws equal to, if not sometimes greater than, his more positive attributes: though he undertakes a quest to save his sister, she annoys him and he loses focus more than once; he is young and strong, but he becomes embarrassed and sullen when he makes mistakes; he holds family in high esteem but he holds a deep resentment to the father he believes abandoned his family. Summers paints a picture of a classic fantasy hero that readers can easily relate to – he has quirks and grievances, he has failings and successes, and ultimately Thomas represents what is it to be human.
Summers also paints a great picture of the other two races presented in The Old Ways, the Seelie and the Unseelie. Their features and types of magic are crystal clear and the animosity between the two races never feels forced or overdone. The plight of the Seelie underneath their Unseelie oppressors is dire and gruesome, and accordingly some Seelie fall into despair while others rally for their freedom and for their queen. The Unseelie who rule over them, too, are not united as a featureless mob, and some Unseelie grapple with moral choices and the often fatal consequences of those choices.
It is the choices and circumstances present in The Old Ways that make it so difficult to recommend a specific age range. Summers does not hesitate to confront dark subjects, like death, betrayal, rape, and slavery. In fact, while he is never graphic in his descriptions, it is clear at all times what is happening: Summers respects her readers enough to deliver to them a story complete with ethical quandaries that can sometimes be uncomfortable to read through. She never delivers these circumstances for mere shock value, however – there is always a deeper purpose to everything included in The Old Ways.
Adults and older teenagers are the ideal audience for this book, though mature younger teenagers, too, will find this a worthwhile read. There are references to classical mythology and literature for every level of reader, from the character of Queen Mab to the Great Hunt, to the legends of selkies and creation gods, and including the dichotomy between pagan “old ways” and the “new” Judeo-Christian religion. Younger readers should probably wait to enjoy The Old Ways.
Enjoying The Old Ways is easy, however, thanks to the attention Summers gives to the world he molds. I say that this novel is semi-high fantasy because there are many aspects of our world that carry over into the world in which Thomas lives. There are enough differences, however, to deem it a totally new place for fantasy lovers to explore. The land of Albion in particular is wondrous in both landscape and inhabitants, with more creatures mentioned lurking in the forests, air, and sea than the novel could feasibly portray. The interactions of these creatures with the humans, Seelie, and Unseelie that live in Thomas’s world are fascinating, and include pirates that fly on feathered harpies as well as giants who live underground.
While one can certainly read The Old Ways simply for the pleasure of encountering the incredible world that Summers shapes, the storyline itself it captivating. I mentioned before the dark topics that Summers explores through the choices and circumstances of his characters, and I stress that the events that unfold never seem too predictable or too rushed. Summers weaves clues as to Thomas’s true identity throughout the novel and there are moments where characters take advantage of the knowledge – or even lack of knowledge – of the other characters in surprising ways. There are prophecies that come to fulfillment through unexpected ends, and people and creatures who are not what they seem. The interplay of the characters and plot in The Old Ways is a large part of what makes Summers such a master at his craft. He uses subtleties and clues in ways that make reading and discovering the answers gratifying, never frustrating.
The Old Ways by R.K. Summers is a fantastic fantasy read dedicated to exploring both the nuances of faeries and the worlds they inhabit and the consequences of choice. If you enjoy tales of surprising depth, I highly recommend The Old Ways. I’ll be anxious to see if Summers continues to write about the adventures of Thomas in the world of the Fae.