Kay, Guy Gavriel: Ysabel

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.


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  1. This book caught me completely by surprise, in the sense that I didn’t realize Kay had a new novel coming out until I saw it in the bookstore last week. I’ve only read the first chapter (in store), and some of the attempts at hipness that you allude to caught my eye as well–it felt like Kay trying to write from a teenage point of view while trying to act like that’s not, in fact what he’s doing, if that makes sense. Anyway.
    I was going to ask if this was a recovery from his (in my opinion) misstep of _Last Light of the Sun_, but it sounds like you haven’t read that, so. I did see, even in the first chapter, that he is still up to his old heavily omniscient foreshadowing tricks, which seemed really cool in _Lions_ and _Sarantium_, et al., but which I suspect has started to wear a bit. And I don’t know that I’m that thrilled to meet old Fionavar characters. But it’s on reserve at the library, and I’ll stil read it.

  2. So is this intended to be YA? It sounds like it from your description, but nothing else inclines me that way.

  3. Trent: no, I didn’t read _Last Light_. I think I was really busy when it first came out, and by the time I could read it, opinion was so uniformly “meh” that I decided to just skip it.
    I don’t think the Fionavar characters are intrusive or overwhelming.

  4. Mike: it’s not YA in the sense I think you mean. The subject matter and the execution are such that the decision whether to shelve it in YA or SF would have been purely a marketing decision.

  5. I haven’t read Ysabel yet, though I probably will. I agree with your brief comment on the Fionavar Tapestry, in some ways it’s one of my favorite series, I’ve probably reread it (or at least parts of it) 10 times or more, but it has major flaws. Some of the things that make it fun to read, the melodrama and epic nature of the story, also, in my opinion, keep it from being great.

  6. Matthew: yes, and some of that may not read well to me now, so I’m wavering on whether to start it. I may just browse through favorite parts.

  7. I wrote a review of Ysabel that’s very similar to your take, kate – see here:
    I love Kay’s work, but for me this was just a tad too… regressive. I know what he was TRYING to do, but for me that failed the moment he brought back the Fionavar characters… which were so utterly unnecessary, in my view, for this story to work, and added very little by their presence in the tale.

  8. Alma: Yeah, your second-to-last paragraph is similar to my reaction, only with spoilers. =>
    (I think I meant to say, that however beautiful the Prologue is, it’s entirely skippable and thus somewhat annoying to me.)

  9. Over on the LJ syndicated feed, which goes away after two weeks, intertext wrote (and then gave me permission to cross-post):
    I think I liked it better than you (here’s my review) but generally agree with the tone of your assessment. I definitely agree about the little careless mistakes – I didn’t notice the ipod one but was annoyed by his saying that someone was taking shots with both a digital camera and an slr as if it were not possible for one camera to be both, which of course it is. And that’s a really silly and obvious mistake, especially when the main character’s father is supposed to be a professional photographer.

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