September 4th, 2010

Rose-coloured reviews *Ysabel* by Guy Gavriel Kay

My review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel must be somewhat lacking in context, as I know it is one of hundreds of books in a genre of which I’ve read, in last 15 years, pretty much zilch. It’s the tale of a teenager, disregarded and pushed around by the adult world, who discovers amazing powers within himself and is able to step in and stop a wrong that e no one else could even fathom. You see–popular story-style.

When one is starting to read in new territory, it is wise to start with the best–so that even if the material is not particularly attractive, the talent of the writer and the intricacy of the structure can help suck you in. Which is why Scott wanted me to read something by Kay, one of Canada’s greatest and most vivid storytellers, as well as a global bestseller and pretty much the only writer I have ever encountered whose readings draw such crowds that people arrive a couple hours early to ensure they get seats.

There’s a reason–Kay is damn good. My somewhat snippy summary above does not at all encompass the 12-character, fast-moving, action/adventure/historical novel that is *Ysabel*. The book takes place in the south of France, where 15-year-old Ned has been dragged so that his famous photographer father can shoot images for a new coffeetable book on the area. His had is accompanied by three assistants, so Ned has no real role to play other than sulk and do homework.

On the first day of shooting, Ned wanders into an old cathedral where, in short order, he meets a pretty exchange student from New York and a 2600-hundred-year-old gentleman who climbs out of the floor, threatens them with a knife, and later springs from the roof.

Unlike some fantasy books I could mention (and most of the vampire-related ones), *Ysabel* does not simply use history to organize or weight the plot, or to sound cool and deep. The plot is intrinsically rooted in Greek/Celt relations (such as they were) from millenia ago. It seemed that Kay had done an incredible amount of research, but to be honest, if he muffed stuff, I could never have caught him, and I doubt most readers could have. That’s the advantage of choosing an esoteric point in history of course.

But a sensational one–if Kay is to be trusted, even the unimproved history contains bloody sieges, obscure marriage rites, seafaring adventure and midnight rituals. Not to mention skull worship. The events that Kay makes use of are so serious and strange that sometimes the improvements he does make on them–the story that Ned walks into involves a eons-old love triangle, and an elaborate game of hide-and-seek–can seem trivial. But most of the time, the book makes a powerful case for history being still with us, always, and the worst crimes never being truly forgotten.

So the man in the cathedral must fight another for the hand of the beautiful Ysabel, and Ned and his new pretty friend Kate get wrapped up in it–first a little, then a lot. And the interesting thing is, then Ned’s dad does too. And his dad’s assistants. Ned’s mom, his aunt and uncle round out the cast.

Since the Brothers Grimm, books have featured plucky young heroes whose parents were either dead or dastardly, and who thus had to fight their battles all all all alone. I have long maintained that there is nothing Freudian in this; it is simply easier to right an adventure story about one or two rather than about a family (try it!) It is really nice to see Ned scrambling along alone and then–in honest 15-year-old fashion–having to turn to his folks for certain kinds of support. *Ysabel* is at times very sweet, but almost never sappy.

All the characters were well-drawn, if not particularly nuanced. Most were strong, conflicted, kind, smart, and frightened, although perhaps each in a slightly different order. There was a long backstory related to Ned’s mom and his aunt which is rather overdramatic and does not have a satisfying resolution, but the more quotidian interactions of the family are natural and smooth–everyone’s pretty panicked by the violence and craziness (supernatural wolves keep attacking) but someone’s always hollering after Ned to bring his cellphone and wear a hoodie. The acknowledgements mention that Kay is a dad of young men perhaps slightly older than Ned, which would explain why his insights, while not exactly profound, are so accurate.

Sometimes I get so caught up in my short-story universe that I forget how other forms work. A 400-page fantasy novel is about as far from short-story as you can get; characters read aloud from historical wall plaques in this book, not just once but several times. They also read from guidebooks, websites, and the occasional poem. And it’s weird to get massive chunks of exposition like this, yes, but honestly, it seemed to work well enough. I guess it is a question of pacing–if you are going into 1000s of years of character backstory, countless wars and sieges,  3/4 of a page on a google search seems about right.

It also helps that Kay’s prose is crystal clear. It’s brilliant in the sense of being invisible–the words just exist to bring you the images. *Ysabel* was the most movie-like book I’ve read in a while. Even sitting beside the massive hardcover, I still feel like I watched it more than read it. And the best way to see the clean *serviceableness* (that’s a compliment, actually) of the prose is to open a page at random. Read/see:

“Ned got back in and slid the door shut. Greg looked back at him for a second, then put the car in gear and started forward again.

“They passed through that closed-in arid canyon in silence, came out of shadow into springtime fields and vineyards and sunlight again. Moments later they saw the Roman arch and a tower on the left side of the road…”

The ending is very very exciting–involving the characters racing up a mountain at dusk towards the site of an ancient murder of 200 000 souls, a crime still present for Ned because of his nascent gift for a kind of second sight. Reeling from the proxy pain, Ned struggles to save a life and (what, I’m not wrecking anything, it’s that kind of book) succeeds. The bittersweet way his victory plays out is touching and my eyes actually watered a bit (it’s been a tough week, though; Kay can’t take entire credit for that).

There is some weirdness going on with the male-female relations in this book, I can’t not mention that. The Ned-Kate relationship is actually pretty natural, quirky and chaste, but quite believeable. There are a couple of really inappropriate sexual jokes from one of the adult characters though. These came early in the book and then went away, so I took it as Kay’s soon-abandoned attempt to be edgy, but the theme comes back right at the end. Way to take the edge off a nice moment, Mr. Author.

More innocuously, there is a way-too-long scene of men-are-idiots-women-are-smart banter that made me insane. I hate those sorts of “women rule the world by telling men where their socks are” jokes: you got so much respect for women, find your own damn socks. And while you’re at it, evaluate on a woman-by-woman basis, instead of a blanket statement. But this is my own personal bugaboo more than anything; the scene is not all that long.

I have not at all really delved into the intricacies of the plot because, well, it’s really intricate. And Kay explains it really well, but I don’t think I could. This book is a fast fast read–you don’t feel at all hard-done-by (there are too many hyphens in this post) reading 400 pages, though it’s a bit much to lug around the hardcover.

Oh, and another cool thing? The main characters are all from Montreal, so while in France, everyone’s speaking French. Neat-o.

Ok, that’s it.

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