The trilogy is set firmly and consciously in the Tolkien tradition of High Fantasy. Kay has said that one of his motives for writing it was to show that the 'matter' of High Fantasy was deep enough to be used in various original ways, and that the genre did not have to become debased into nothing but pale Tolkien imitations.
The Tapestry tells the tale of five young Canadians, Kimberly (Kim) Ford, Jennifer Lowell, Dave Martyniuk, Paul Schafer and Kevin Laine, who are taken to Fionavar, the first of all worlds, by Loren Silvercloak, a mage of that world. Ostensibly invited to come as guests of the court for a celebration of the anniversary of the monarch's ascension to the throne, all five students quickly find that their roles in Fionavar are far more complex than they originally expected.
The book is well known for keeping good track of its numerous characters, drawing a good amount of its themes and setting from Celtic and Norse Myths, as well as Arthurian Legend.
The story is divided into 3 books:
- The Summer Tree
- The Wandering Fire
- The Darkest Road
It is also available in a collected edition.
While most of Kay's other novels are set in the same multiverse as the Fionavar tapestry, Ysabel (published in 2007) is an actual sequel. Set in twenty-first century Provence, twenty-five years after the events of The Fionavar Tapestry, it tells the tale of Ned Mariner, a Canadian teenager, who find himself involved into an ancient hatred between two cursed souls. With his own second sight barely awakening, and the advice of his aunt Kimberly, who is by then married with Dave (who also appears), Ned has to find a way to free one of his friend who has become a part of the curse, before she is gone forever.
Is now trying to get a character sheet.
This series provides examples of:
- Aerith and Bob: The Five from Earth all have standard modern names while the characters from Fionavar tend to have strange exotic names. However, there are a few characters who have more standard names, like Matt Soren. Two of the Earthlings receive Aerith-ised versions of their names, which become so commonly used that when a Finovar character calls one by their Bob-name, it stopped them in their tracks.
- Anyone Can Die: And a lot of them do. Though two of the main characters who die come Back from the Dead.
- Badass Normal: Out of the Five it's Dave. He's the only one that isn't a reincarnation or gains/awakens powers, relying instead on his strength and wits.
- Beam-O-War: Played beautifully straight in the duel between Loren and Metran, complete with the villain's beam inching closer and closer to victory before a Heroic Second Wind on Loren's part.
- Beauty Equals Goodness: Jennifer/Guinevere, the Lios Alfar. Doubly Subverted with Avaia as she is beautiful from far away, but smells foul and has a mouth full of razor-sharp teeth.
- Be Careful What You Wish For: Subverted. Ceinwen warns Flidais that if he ever finds the answer to the only riddle he doesn't know, the name by which King Arthur can be summoned, it might leave him unsatisfied and purposeless. Instead, when he finally gets his answer, it brings him fulfillment and peace.
- Boisterous Bruiser: Tegid, one of Diarmuid's band from the Black Boar tavern.
- Can't Argue with Elves: Averted. The Lios Alfar are humble, polite and respectful (though at one point early in The Summer Tree, Brendel is rather sharp with High King Ailell about whether Daniloth or Brennin has better executed its guardianship duty).
- Cast from Hit Points: The type of magic used by Loren and the other mages of the kingdom. There is a pair of magic-users, the mage, who does all the casting, and the source, whose life force is used to cast. Metran uses the life energy of hundreds of Svart Alfar to create both the unending winter in Brennin and the death rain that destroys Eridu, and he revives them using the Cauldron to do it again.
- Downer Ending: At least for The Summer Tree. Four out of the five are reunited, only to learn that the fifth is in deep Despair Event Horizon.
- Dragon with an Agenda: Galadan serves Rakoth Maugrim, but it's made very clear that this is only to advance his personal goal — destroying the world that witnessed the shame of his true love abandoning him for a mortal and then getting herself killed. Rakoth is entirely aware of this and finds it funny.
- Evil Counterpart: Galadan to Paul; both are served/protected by canine guardians (wolves for Galadan, Cavall the hound for Paul), both become agents for a greater Power out of destructive grief over lost love (though Paul's grief is directed inward while Galadan's is directed outward), and careful scanning reveals they are even somewhat physically similar — both dark-haired, pale men with a compact build.
- Evil Overlord: Rakoth Maugrim isn't just an Evil Overlord; he is the inspirational archetype/avatar for all Dark Lords or Gods of Evil of all the worlds in the Tapestry, and it is explicitly stated that if he succeeds in conquering Fionavar then all worlds will become overshadowed by the Dark.
- Exact Words: Invoked and subverted. When Dave accidentally comes upon the goddess Ceinwen hunting, she tells him that no man of Fionavar may see this sight and live. Instead of saying he's actually from Earth, he sincerely apologizes and offers to pay whatever price she asks. Ceinwen points out he could have pulled this, and is so pleased he didn't that she spares his life and makes him a favorite of hers. However, it does come back to bite him later. She said of Fionavar, not born in Fionavar, meaning that he has to go back to Earth, because if he makes Fionavar his home she'll have to follow through on killing him.
- The Fair Folk: The spirits of Pendaran Wood, Eilathen (the bound water-spirit in Ysanne's lake), and the Wild Hunt are all inhuman forces of nature with no particular love for humanity; indeed, the Pendaran spirits so despise human beings since the death of Lisen the deiena that any human who goes farther into the wood than the merest outskirts will almost always meet a terrible fate. Similarly, the Wild Hunt can be invoked to fight in battle, but they have a tragic tendency to start killing foes on both sides.
- Gentle Giant: The Paraiko are such pacifists that they do not even know how to feel the emotion of hatred, and cannot use violence or war in any way; this inborn, universal compassion is the source of their gifts of the "kanior" (a death ritual which brings the memory of the deceased to vivid life in all who knew them) and the "bloodcurse" (which allows them to put any curse they choose on whoever sheds their blood). Tragically, they lose both gifts when Kim, in order to get them to join the war, has to use the Baelrath to teach them hatred by showing them Rakoth's rape of Jennifer.
- Glad He's On Our Side: When Shalhassan mobilizes Cathal to provide military aid to Brennin, he still wants to score some points off them by catching Brennin unawares and forcing them to scramble to provide a proper greeting. Unfortunately for him, he is greeted on the road by Diarmuid, who apparently knew that they were coming all along. Then, when they reach Brennin's capital, they find that Aileron has indeed prepared a proper greeting for them...in less than two hours, since he did not know they were coming (Diarmuid hadn't told him, leaving it as a test of Aileron's defensive preparations. Less of a dick move than it sounds, since he fully expected Aileron to succeed.). Faced with one brother who's a genius at intelligence and another who is a genius at organization and defensive preparation, Shalhassan can only agree when Matt says "Be glad that they are ours."
- Go Mad from the Revelation: Averted when the protagonists learn that for over a thousand years, every Lios Alfar who set sail to the West for their version of heaven... was devoured by a sea monster set to lie in wait for them by the Big Bad. "Most hated by the Dark, for their name was Light."
- Henchmen Race: the Svart Alfar. They are given no origin story, nor an explanation to why they follow the Big Bad without questions — they just do.
- Heroic Sacrifice: Let's see...
- Paul willingly volunteers to hang from the Summer Tree till his death to bring rain to the parched land. (He gets better).
- Finn, first by leaving behind forever everyone he's ever known or loved, and then by dying as the only way to prevent the Wild Hunt from killing everyone.
- Kevin willingly sacrifices himself at Dun Maura to enable the Godess to banish Rakoth's winter.
- Matt Soren allows himself to be drained to the death to fuel Loren's spells on Caer Sedat.
- Diarmuid, who fights a duel he cannot win to give Lancelot, Guinevere and Arthur a chance to change their fate.
- Imraith-Nimphais, which goes kamikaze on Rakoth's dragon.
- And last but not least, Darien, who hurls himself on a dagger he had just given his father Rakoth...a dagger enchanted so that anyone who kills with it, if they kill without love, will die.
- Inevitably Broken Rule: Central to the plot of The Summer Tree. The land of Fionavar is dying because the High King will not fulfill his duty and hang on the Summer Tree, which is supposed to be inevitably fatal, nor allow his son to take his place. Then Paul, a visitor from our world chooses to hang upon the Summer Tree for the required three days, and apparently God Himself is in a good mood and decides to let Paul live while still saving Fionavar.
- Kill the Lights: When Galadan ambushes Paul and Jennifer on Earth, he smothers the room in complete darkness with a gesture and gloats that he can see in the dark. They immediately retreat via Dimensional Travel, knowing they wouldn't stand a chance against him.
- Magical Society: The Council of Mages, which comprises all wielders of the "sky-lore" in Brennin and the sources who power their magic for them. It is mentioned briefly that Amairgen Whitebranch, the first mage and discoverer of the skylore, declared there could never be more than seven mages at a time in Brennin, most likely to keep them from becoming politically factionalized or assuming power as The Magocracy.
- Meaningful Name: Names of creatures: Lios Alfar and Svart Alfar literally translate to "Light Elves" and "Dark Elves" in Old Norse.
- Names to Run Away from Really Fast: Rakoth Maugrim, The Unraveller: becomes a much more intimidating title when you realize that the people of Fionavar refer to the multiverse as "The Tapestry".
- Our Dwarves Are All the Same: Surprisingly subverted. The one dwarf we meet early on is The Quiet One. When the book finally shows other dwarves, they are excellent craftsmen, and they solve their conflicts through a debate known as a Word Striving. And in one of the more blatant parodies of post-Tolkien fantasy:She could never have explained rationally why the presence of a Dwarf woman should surprise her so much, why she'd assumed, without ever giving it a moment's thought, that the females among the Dwarves should look like... oh, beardless, stocky equivalents of fighting men like Matt and Brock. After all, she herself didn't much resemble Coll of Taerlindel or Dave Martyniuk. At least on a good day she didn't! Neither did the woman who had come for her. A couple of inches shorter than Matt Sören, she was slim and graceful, with wide-set dark eyes and straight black hair hanging down her back.
- Pair the Spares: Kim and Dave, the only two of the five who live to return to our world and don't have any other love interest, seem poised to hook up on literally the last page with very few prior indications. The sequel eventually confirms this.
- Physical God: Several of the characters are either gods or demigod offspring of said gods.
- Polyamory: In the end, Guinevere goes to Avalon with Arthur and Lancelot for a happily-ever-after.
- Screw the Rules, I'm Doing What's Right!: Per the Weaver's law, gods are not allowed to interfere with mortal affairs by their own will. They must either repay a sacrifice or be bound. This doesn't stop several gods from deciding the punishment is worth it and going right ahead with helping the heroes.
- Villain Ball: When you're an Eldritch Abomination with Complete Immortality because your "name isn't written into the tapestry", and siring a child will serve to write your name into the tapestry, the one crime you shouldn't commit is rape.
- What Happened to the Mouse?: Sharra, a point of view character with a decent amount of page time, drops out of the narrative after Diarmuid's death. There's a couple of mentions of her tending to the wounded during battle, but her ultimate fate is unknown. In an afterword written for the trilogy's twentieth anniversary, Kay stated that he had tried several times to write a scene in the last novel's denouement for Sharra, but ultimately couldn't think of anything that would tell the audience anything they couldn't figure out for themselves: she would go back to Cathal, eventually inherit her father's throne, and rule wisely and well.
- "Well Done, Son" Guy: Several characters, among them Dave, Torc, and both Aileron and Diarmuid (in their own ways), would clearly like to have had more respect from their fathers. Not all of them get the chance to earn it.
- You Can't Fight Fate: Averted. Humans at the very least very much can fight fate (it's part of what the Wild Hunt stands for), and several characters pointedly do; however, there will usually be a price to pay for that. (For example, when Kimberley refuses the Baelrath's urging to call the Crystal Dragon to war, it eventually results directly in Imraith-Nimphais sacrificing herself to defeat the enemy the dragon was destined to fight. She feels horrible about it, but Paul points out that it also means she was able to teleport Matt to the army of the Dwarves so he could stop them from fighting for Maugrim, so there are good consequences too.)