Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Series: Related to The Fionavar Tapestry but a stand alone
Why I Chose this Book:
I read and loved The Fionavar Tapestry when it came out and went on to read Tigana when that was published. The latter was an amazing book, but fundamentally quite depressing (or at least, I remember finding it so at the time), so when Kay's books seemed to continue in that vein and get longer and longer as well, I stopped reading his books but always imagined I'd go back to them one day. When I heard about Ysabel coming out, and that it was more in the tone of the Fionavar books with mundane and otherworldly elements, I knew I wanted to read this one.
In this exhilarating, moving new work, Guy Gavriel Kay casts brilliant light on the ways in which history—whether of a culture or a family—refuses to be buried. Ned Marriner, fifteen years old, has accompanied his photographer father to Provence for a six-week "shoot" of images for a glossy coffee-table book. Gradually, Ned discovers a very old story playing itself out in this modern world of iPods, cellphones, and seven-seater vans whipping along roads walked by Celtic tribes and Roman legions. On one holy, haunted night of the ancient year, when the borders between the living and the dead are down and fires are lit upon the hills, Ned, his family, and his friends are shockingly drawn into this tale, as dangerous, mythic figures from conflicts of long ago erupt into the present, claiming and changing lives.
As I said, I read and loved the Fionavar books when they came out. Part of that was a matter of timing - I read them just as I was really becoming a dedicated fantasy reader and I would have been in my mid to late teens at the time. These were the first "out of our world" type books I'd read that had adult protagonists - before that I'd been reading books about teenagers having adventures - and to meet these university students (or they may even had been graduates, I don't 100% remember now) was like entering a new world. I loved it. And as good (but depressing) as I found Tigana, I missed that element in Kay's second work. Historical fiction/fantasy isn't as much my thing and I think that's a significant factor in my I didn't read Kay's other books.
In Ysabel it seemed that I might get the best of both worlds - that unreality in our reality theme I like combined with Kay's more matured writing talents.
For the first half of the book, I wasn't exactly sure. The book moved well, the charcters were excellently drawn and I was very interested - but I admit I wasn't captivated. I wondered if I had been expecting too much; if the combination of probably inaccurate memories of books I'd really liked joined with Kay's current reputation built on the books I hadn't read had made me demand far too much from one book. Then, about half way through, some new, but familiar characters turned up, their presence made some of the previously mysterious illusions make sense and the book really took off. And in the end, I loved it. It loses out on a perfect score because of that marginally weaker first half, but I recommend Ysabel whole-heartedly. And for all that I said the presence of those other characters (I didn't guess who they were going to be, so don't want to spoil it for anyone else who might otherwise be surprised) marked the turn in the book, I still believe the book would be just as satisfying for anyone who hasn't read Kay before. Their arrival in the turning point, but I doesn't matter if the reader has met them previously or not.
So, the book itself.
Nick, the protagonist, seems to me to be very well drawn. I admit I don't have any personal experience with 15 year old boys in 2007, but he felt real to me. He runs, listens to his ipod (verisimilitude or pop culture reference that will date?), emails his friends back at school and embarks on a tentative friendship with an American girl his own age on an exchange in Provence. But all is not as simple as it seems and an encounter with a strange man in a cathedral sets Nick and Kate on a strange journey, caught up in a centuries old love triangle. He's forced to discover, first that he isn't as grown up as he imagined and then to do that growing up as he must deal with adult issues and new mental abilities waking inside him.
The minor characters are also well drawn, especially Melanie with her green hair, organised mind and post-it notes. Of all the people filling the book, it is probably Kate who is the most broadly drawn, an odd situation considering that she, along with Nick, is part of the story from the beginning. Yet somehow, she never truly became part of the central, or at least it seemed that way to me. I'm still not sure if this was intentional or accidental.
The first half of the book is full of mysteries and unanswered questions; something I found a little frustrating and that reduced my enjoyment of that part of the book. There were so many hints of what was going on without telling me anything and that drives me nuts! However, my faith and persistence was rewarded, because once the answers started coming, around the halfway point, all the pieces that had been so carefully set up began to fall into place and everything began to pick up pace beautifully.
This is a tale about how history impinges on the present, not only the ancient history that is the central plot of the book, but family history as well. As the book progresses we discover that Nick's mother, a doctor working in the Sudan with Doctors Without Borders is running from her own past issues, focussing on her estrangement with her sister that has lasted the better part of twenty years. This is addressed and developed as Nick's aunt arrives to help with the mystical aspects of the tale and while a healing is begun, I was pleased that the two women still had work to do and it wasn't possible to dismiss two decades of acrimony overnight, no matter what the pressing world issues they might be facing.
All in all, I really enjoyed this book. While it is absolutely a stand alone novel, it would also be possible to see Nick and Company return in a future novel and I would be delighted to do so. A lovely book, it has also inspired me to put A Song for Arbonne on my TBR pile and The Summer Tree on my to-be-reread pile.