Fresh from reading most of Tolkien’s work, and writing a gigantic essay on it too, I have a different perspective on Kay’s work. Especially when reminded that Kay worked on The Silmarillion with Christopher Tolkien. He has a lot in common with Tolkien, really: the synthesis of a new mythology (though not done as history, and therefore lacking all the little authenticating details that Tolkien put in) using elements of an old one (though Kay used Celtic and Norse mythology, and goodness knows what else). The comparisons can’t help but be made, though Kay sees his world as a tapestry and Tolkien as a song being sung.
I don’t think he makes his world as well as Tolkien does. I feel info-dumped, at times, rather than as if I’m just touching on the tip of a giant submerged mass of lore and wonder that even the inhabitants of his world only half-know. His gods are much more touchable, and more concerned with the individual fates of mortal men, and so less distant and thus less awe-inspiring. I think, perhaps more like C.S. Lewis, he tries to handle more than he can really weave together.
But, that’s not to say it’s totally unsuccessful. A book that can have me laughing at one moment and weeping not three pages later can’t exactly be classed as unsuccessful. His style is distancing at first — perhaps too much of a high tone, which Tolkien avoided with his hobbits — but there are some lovely lines and turns of phrase, and undoubtedly he makes me care about the characters.
Another hint that he’s doing quite well is that this is at least my fourth reread of this trilogy, though I could well have read it more than that.
Not perfect, but beloved all the same.