Ysabel (2007): Guy Gavriel Kay


Guy Gavriel Kay can be a very, very good writer and it’s precisely for this reason that I felt disappointed by this book, because I know how much more he is capable of. Ysabel covers ground which is similar to Kay’s early Fionavar Tapestry books, in that people from the ‘real’ world suddenly find themselves drawn into the centre of ancient or magical events.

Personally, I confess that I didn’t enjoy the Fionavar books. I know that for lots of people they’re their first experience of Kay’s work, and that they are much loved, but I came to them after books such as Sailing to Sarantium. Somehow they felt a little forced after that elegant grandeur: less profound; less challenging. Ysabel had much the same feel for me, and in fact turned out to owe much more to Fionavar than I’d initially realised. The penny didn’t drop until I was close to the end, by which point the link felt slightly like a gimmick.

When he accompanies his photographer father on a trip to Provence, fifteen-year-old Ned Marriner inadvertently becomes involved in a timeless cycle of desire and retribution. Two men and a woman are bound to eternally re-enact their ancient love triangle among the forests and Celtic sites of the South of France, and the most recent incarnation of their story threatens Ned and those he holds dear. This is where the problems start.

In trying to blend ancient and modern, Kay shuttles between two styles of writing which sit together rather awkwardly. The modern-day characters exchange banter full of slang and pop-culture references which already risk becoming dated, and which make the novel feel as if it’s aimed directly at a ‘young adult’ market rather than the broader range of readers who enjoy Kay’s other books. The mystical side of the story is dealt with in a richer, more archaic kind of prose which is closer to Kay’s style in Sailing to Sarantium or the equally brilliant The Lions of Al-Rassan. The problem is that, by having two markedly different styles, it feels as though Kay isn’t sure what kind of book he wants to write. Moreover, the changes in tone are very noticeable, drawing the reader’s attention to the construction of the book, which undermines our faith in this imagined world.

Part of the difficulty is in the choice of Ned Marriner as the protagonist. In token of his narrator’s youth, Kay fills the book with offhand allusions to iPods, Google and mobile phones, which sometimes makes it feel as though he’s trying just a bit too hard. And this teenage narration feels even less convincing when it sits side by side with the rare moments in which Kay forgets himself, and soars away with some stirring scene, like the ritual at Entremont. For example, I felt that the characterisation of Kate Wenger during that scene was particularly poor.

Objectively, this is not a bad book, but (being in my mid-twenties) I felt ten years too old for it. At his best, Kay can create complex, believable characters and richly engaging worlds, but this felt a bit like a dropped ball. Judging by some of the reviews on Amazon, I am not the only person who feels like this. I just hope that with his future novels he’ll return to the historical fantasy which he does so well.

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