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Friday, March 9, 2007

"Ysabel" by Guy Gavriel Kay

Part of the joy of reading an author you never have before is getting acquainted with that author’s particular writing style and ‘voice.’ Sometimes that journey can be quite exciting…other times not so much. In the case of “Ysabel”, the latest from Guy Gavriel Kay – an international best-selling, multi-award winning novelist for those who may not know – I was treated to a wonderfully wrought fantasy that more than measured up to the expectations that I had for a Mr. Kay book.

As noted by the dust jacket, “Ysabel” is set in modern-day France and is mostly told through the eyes of protagonist Ned Marriner, 15-year old son of famous photographer Edward Marriner and his wife Meghan of Doctors Without Borders. Without delving further into specifics, “Ysabel” is a relatively simple story where the ancient past converges with the present in a Shakespearean-like tale of enduring love, vengeance and other revelations. To say anything further of the plot I think, would ruin the experience that “Ysabel” has to offer and so I'll leave it at that.

Now, whenever I think of a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, I usually think ‘historical fantasy’, the genre which is most associated with the author, and “Ysabel” is no exception. From Aix-en-Provence to Entremont and various other settings throughout France, “Ysabel” is a lovingly researched, detail-oriented world that is informatively depicted while masterfully blurring the line between what is fact and what is fiction. In addition, drawing from Greek, Roman and Celtic cultures, Mr. Kay establishes a rich mythos that is at once revealing and mysteriously magical. Now, I’ll be honest, ‘historical fiction’ isn’t really my cup of tea, so what I like best about “Ysabel” is that the historical elements accentuate rather than override the plot or characters, which can sometimes happen in books of this nature.

Speaking of which, as the heart and soul of this emotional accounting, Ned Marriner is a well-crafted character, realistically portrayed – several times I found myself transported back to a life as a teenager – and fully developed with a dynamic personality that comes to life through snappy dialogue, thoughtful insights and fairly accurate pop culture references. What really nailed the character for me though, was the way the book, coming from a 15-year-old’s point of view, reads like a young adult novel, very PG-like with a distinctive lack of graphic violence/sexuality or cursing…after all Ned’s parents forbid profanity :). So if you enjoy your reading material edgier and darker, then be forewarned. Meanwhile, surrounding Ned is a cast of equally colorful, though much less defined personas, which really is no surprise since Ned is undoubtedly the star of the show. While the characterization is definitely top-notch, along with the pacing and the overall development of the story, I did find the book to be a bit too conversational and with less action & fantastical elements than I would have liked. This is not necessarily a negative issue considering how well-written “Ysabel” is; it’s just something I wasn’t expecting.

Since this is the first novel that I’ve read by Mr. Kay, I can’t tell you how “Ysabel” compares with the author’s previous works. What I CAN tell you is that if you’re looking for something different from your run-of-the-mill fantasy epics,
then “Ysabel” is the perfect tonic... It's a beautifully fashioned, emotive, self-contained, modern fairy tale that is grounded in reality, easy to get sucked into, and even harder to put down no matter how young or old you may be…


donny said...

Well Robert... I'm a fantasy fan from a long while back, and I'm a great fan of GGK. Not nearly rabid, but tenacious.

But I tell it like it is - if it isn't good, it isn't.

I agree mostly with your impressions of the book - YA-like, simple plot, nothing complicated beyond an engrossing story. He showed a glimpse of what he is capable of in his evocative ending, but seeing as you've not read his other works, let me just say that if Ysabel impressed you, his Tigana or Lions of Al-Rassan or the Sarantium Mosaic duology will blow your socks off.

Give him a try, and you'll probably list him on your favourite authors list (I share GRRM and Gaiman with you, with a dash of Erikson).


Robert said...

Donny, thanks for your thoughts. I definitely hope to check out Mr. Kay's backlog, but I'm not sure when I'll get to...I have so much material to read right now, I think it's gonna take me years to get caught up ;)

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