Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
Published by Roc, February 2007
ISBN: 0451461290 / 9780451461292
Review by Mark Yon / Hobbit
Let’s start this review with a word association game. Name me some words that you wouldn’t expect to read in a Guy Gavriel Kay book.
Now try these: iPod. Email. Led Zeppelin. U2. Coldplay. Alanis Morissette.
All of these are in Guy’s latest, Ysabel. This book rips up a lot of conventions and preconceptions you may have about a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Unlike Guy's last, The Last Light of the Sun, Guy’s latest tome is a contemporary book. It is set in the here-and-now, which can cause the unwary reader quite a jolt. There are all the trappings of a modern story: mp3 players, motorcars, swimming pools, cappuccinos and references to George Lucas, but given a Gavriel Kay spin that teeters off into The Twilight Zone.
However, (as you might expect if you’ve read some GGK before), there’s more to it.
The story is pretty straightforward, at least to start. Fifteen year old Ned Marriner has been given a few weeks off school to be with his Dad (the famous photographer Edward Marriner), whilst his Dad takes photos for a new book about the Provence area of France. His mum/mom, Doctor Meghan Marriner, is away in Darfur working for Medicines sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders).
One morning, whilst the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence has been shut off away from the public for the photoshoot, Ned sees an old-looking, scarred man appear out of the cathedral floor from a grate. Before long we are looking at mystery artifacts, searching mysterious sites of historical importance and observing an ages-long battle between two near-eternal adversaries for the hand of the mysterious Ysabel.
The pace initially seems rapid, though nothing of majorly consequence seems to happen for a while. Some of the events inside this book do need the suspension of disbelief as Guy travels into ancient myth and legend. I was reminded a little of Robert Holdstock’s Mythago Wood series in places, with the depiction of ancient places and people.
The need to move around in haste did cover up a few plot conveniences that were glossed over but stood out as a little clunky – the sudden appearance of ‘a girl’, self-confessed geek, American Kate Wenger, who, in a matter of days, becomes inseparable from Ned, the way that Ned’s mysterious aunt and uncle are brought into the story (though readers of The Fionavar Tapestry may not be so surprised), the sudden miraculous return of Ned’s mother to the scene, the speed at which rather surreal events are accepted by many of the characters involved – all of these take a little bit of forbearance on the part of the reader.
The characterisation is rather uneven too. Much of this derives from the lead character, Ned. Guy has tried to write about a fifteen year old teenage boy on the edge of adulthood, and this works with a surprising degree of variance. Some of the conversations are witty and well-expressed, but not like many fifteen-year-olds I know, and rather too much like Dawson’s Creek for my liking. At other times there are odd lapses. I’m not sure that there are many fifteen year olds listening to Led Zeppelin and Coldplay and liking it, never mind dealing with the complications that this story creates.
This is definitely not your normal typical family. Certainly looking around me I see very few fifteen year olds with the intelligence and inner-depth that Ned exhibits. His lifestyle is not too typical either – servants and helpers abound, swimming pools and wealth seem to surround him. This may not endear him to anyone away from the engagingly rich lifestyle, but it is fantasy after all.
As for the bad-guys, they were enigmatic, but not as apocalyptic as I rather expected them to be. The titular Ysabel has an interesting premise in her makeup but ultimately read as someone who was petty and rather self-centred and did little to merit the cumulative reputation of her status as drop-dead gorgeous.
Despite the initial thoughts that the book was fast-paced, overall the pace of the whole book is fairly leisurely, though it gripped me and the pages turned fast enough. There is quite a lot of chasing around followed by periods of calm. I can see though that for many fifteen year old boys the pace is far too slow, and certainly not the blood-drenched gore-fest that many fifteen year old boys would appreciate. The last hundred or so pages are a little more energetic, though still not a Hollywood-style denoument. Ultimately the book falls unevenly between readers: too leisurely perhaps for young readers who might be attracted by some of the ideas, too convenient for adults.
As an adult reader, though, there are places in the prose that I found were just stunning. The Prologue is one of the best introductions I’ve read in ages. Try these few lines from the first and second pages:
‘Because of those tall eastern trees, dawn declared itself – at any time of year – with a slow, pale brightening, not just the disk of the sun itself above the horizon. If someone were watching from the villa windows or terrace they would see the black cypresses on the lawn slowly drift towards green and take on form from the top downwards, emerging from the silhouetted sentinels they were in the night. Sometimes in winter there was mist, and the light would disperse it like a dream.’
The descriptions of places are fabulous.
As ever, Guy’s research is meticulous and thorough. Although set in the present, the book (like many of Guy’s earlier books) has the weight of history behind it. It uses present day Provence (France) as its locale, but visits ancient cathedrals, battlefields, towers and coliseums in the area and even glimpses past times and events. The book gives a palpable sense of the past through its pages, making me feel like I was there or at least wanting to go see these places mentioned. It should do wonders for the French tourist trade, as if they didn’t need more visitors already.
Is this then Guy Gavriel Kay’s breakout book? I can see a lot of non-typical genre readers liking this one – it’s better for me than Dan Brown or Kate Mosse, for example, though not perfect. I can certainly see it as a book to try as a GGK primer, before going onto Tigana or The Lions of Alrassan. However parts of it do not read as successfully as they should for me and despite the promising start (and ending) it failed to deliver on many counts, which may deter the casual reader from exploring further.
Guy deserves credit for not being complacent about his writing and trying for something a little different. Whilst not a total success, there are parts that are wonderful, and despite the reservations the book was enjoyable for me overall.
Mark Yon / Hobbit, March 2007.
Copyright © sffworld.com. If quoted please credit "sffworld.com, name of reviewer".