Guy Gavriel Kay’s new book, Ysabel, is a return to his first work, The Fionavar Tapestry, in at least two ways. It is the first of his books since then to have a contemporary setting, though this book is set entirely in our world; and two characters from The Fionavar Tapestry reappear (rather to my surprise). I read it as a return in a third way, to one of the story patterns prominent in Fionavar, but that’s debatable.
Ned Marriner is fifteen and in present-day Provence, because his photographer father is shooting a book there and his mother is in the Sudan with Doctors Without Borders. In a chapel, he meets two people in rapid succession: an American girl named Kate, and a man with a knife who tells them first, “He isn’t here,” and second, that they should leave because while he has killed children before, he has “no strong desire to do so now.” Because he is a character in a book, and for other reasons, Ned doesn’t let go of the mystery posed by the man; and he, Kate, and the photography crew are drawn into the latest iteration of a very old story.
While I admire Kay for attempting something new, the book doesn’t work for me. The most fundamental reason is the voice, which didn’t click and thus kept me a layer away from the story. Some of my problems are with the little details Kay throws in to show that Ned is a present-day teenager: to take the opening chapter as an example, iPods don’t have an off button, and while Pearl Jam is still angry and might still be cool, I suspect that “grunge” is no longer a label in current use. But more fundamentally, I find that Kay’s distinctive style, heavy on omniscient foreshadowing and portent, jars when combined with a contemporary teenager’s viewpoint. (Also, comma splices seem to be much more obstrusive in this book than in The Sarantine Mosaic, the last Kay books I read.)
As a separate problem, I was not engaged by the old story that the present-day characters become enmeshed with. It has logistical issues, if you will, the why and how of things, which are not explained, and I couldn’t construct any satisfactory explanation myself out of the information given. This lack led, at least in part, to other problems: a perception of gender essentialism, which needless to say I disliked; a lack of conviction that the story was as fundamental as the characters claimed; and a dissatisfaction with the story’s resolution, which seems either anticlimactic, pessimistic, or subversive of the grand high nature of the story itself—which I suppose might be interesting, if I thought it were done on purpose. Instead, it just seems a muddle.
I’d been thinking I might re-read The Fionavar Tapestry if I didn’t like this book, because something else reminded me of it. Now that Ysabel has turned out to be connected, that might be another incentive. Of course Fionavar is a muddle too, but in the kitchen-sink direction, and for all its flaws I retain an affection for it. It may well be that like Fionavar, Ysabel would work for some people who either disagree with my assessment of its flaws or aren’t bothered by such things. But it’s not a book for me.