Thursday, April 30, 2009

Review - Ysabel

by Guy Gavriel Kay
2008 World Fantasy Award Winner for Best Novel

It would be the last novel that's the hardest to write about. It's not that I hate it; it's really easy to articulate exactly why I despise something. And it's not that I loved it. I just... kind of disliked Ysabel and I can't completely figure out why.

A teenager spending a few months in France encounters a mysterious man in a cathedral who warns the teenager to stay away. The teenager begins to sense things like the fact that the man is centuries old and when the teenager visits an ancient battleground he can feel the deaths of thousands. This leads the teen and his friends to become entangled in a mismatched love story that has been repeating itself for more than two thousands years and inevitably ends in bloodshed.

Part of my problem with the novel is that I didn't care about the protagonist. It might be to Kay's credit that he captures the voice of an overbearing teenager so well but it's a really unpleasant narrative voice to spend a book with. His extremely clumsy sexual advances might be accurate but they're also creepy to read about. His childishness in dealing with people is true to life and makes him difficult to relate to as an adult reader. It's a case where doing something well repelled me as a reader.

On the other hand Kay created some interesting antagonists with his ancient people trapped in a story cycle. They're all pulled by forces beyond their control and they could be friendly with the hero in the right circumstances. When the reader is feeling some sympathy for them is usually when Kay drops a reminder that they are men who did terrable things of their own free will as part of it. I would have much rather read a book about them without the teenager involved.

It didn't help that the protagonist kept acquiring superpowers over the story that weren't really clear. He can do poorly defined stuff that changes depending on the need of the story. Kay uses these powers for exposition and development rather than resolution of problems so it isn't constantly becoming a magical deus ex machina. It's clear he's trying to tie these abilities into adolecent development but that doesn't make it interesting.

I do have to compliment Ysabel for being a fast paced novel. You could almost split the book in half between the development of one mystery and the start of a larger problem and neither portion ever gets dull. Any time the plot threatens to slow down Kay throws in another confrontation.

One of the odder things in the novel to grate against me is the constant name dropping. The protagonist is quick to mention then current technology products by name and does it all the time. I understand that Kay is attempting to root the story in present day but it came across to me as a middle aged man name dropping to seem hip. It's just a little thing but it throws me out of the story to be told that the situation is like Guild Wars or what band is playing on his iPod.

One more oddity in Ysabel is the fact that it ties into Kay's Fionavar Tapestry series. A pair of characters from that fantasy triology turn up in this book. It's not necessary to read the fantasy trilogy to follow Ysabel but there are several references that knowledge of the other books will make clear.

Trying to pin down exactly what I don't like in Ysabel is rough for me. I clearly did not like the protagonist and found him both unpleasant and uninteresting. I also wasn't really drawn in by Kay's prose which feels dead to me (both in this book and others he has written). It's not a specific problem I could point to; it comes down to I don't care for how Kay writes. That means I can intellectually aknowledge Ysabel as an average novel that I couldn't bring myself to care about. I'm sure it has its audience (that's obvious from its selection as a World Fantasy Award winner) but that audience does not include me.