Friday, 25 January 2013

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Many years ago I read the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry trilogy entitled The Summer Tree (1984).  What I remember most clearly about that book was how much I enjoyed the introduction.  Five students at the University of Toronto attend a lecture and find out that the guest lecturer is actually a magical person from the land of Fionavar.  He invites them to travel with him back to his country.  The U of T setting being so familiar to me I was really excited by the book.  However, when they left Toronto and arrived in the magical kingdom I was reminded why I never read fantasy.  This is the same reason I've never been able to get through more than 30 pages of Lord of the Rings (and I am determined to give it my best shot this year!).  I appear unable to concentrate as soon as the characters start wearing cloaks or sprout horns.  Suddenly, the laundry needs doing, my in-box needs sorting, some string needs winding...  So, I'm really not sure why I picked up Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel.  Perhaps it was the compelling and gorgeous cover.  Yes.  I'll admit it.  It was the cover that did it.

The setting of the novel is Aix-en-Provence, France, and fifteen-year-old Canadian Ned Marriner is accompanying his famous photographer father, Edward, while he captures images of the area for his latest book.  Ned enters the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral in Aix while his father is attempting to capture the facade, and there meets an American exchange student named Kate Wenger.  Together they have a strange encounter with a bald, scarred man who rises up through a grate in the floor.  Ned and his family and friends appear to be at the vortex of a dangerous upheaval when the past and present begin to collide and old animosities spill over into the present.

I enjoyed the book for the first 150 pages, and then came the supernatural spirit wolves and the cloaked druids and the horned man-beast and I had to fight to keep my focus. I was determined to forge on to the end, and luckily it did pick up again after another 200 pages.  That still left another 150 pages to go (and trust me, I was counting!).

I wasn't expecting this to be a Young Adult book which it most definitely is.  I have nothing against Young Adult books if they are well written, but this fell into the trap of starting with the smart alecky, angsty teenager with an iPod and a bad attitude in predictable and uninspired prose.  I never came to care for any of the characters in the novel and continued to be confused about the objective, other than placing Ned in a situation where his coming-of-age is accelerated by pitting him against mythological bad guys with horns.  I would have liked to have spent more time with the exchange student, but she seemed to disappear when the action heated up, along with Melanie who had a lot of promise as a character that was never realized.

Clearly, I was not the intended audience.  Sorry GGK.

Guy Gavriel Kay
author image from here


  1. Lee-Anne, this sounds awful and I shall make sure to avoid this book! I found the same problem when I was reading "The Box of Delights" (John Masefield) recently to Tom. OK, it's a totally different kind of book, but it's the suspension of belief that I don't like. I can cope with people seeing magical wolves running in the snow, and I can even cope with people magically transporting to other places by walking into paintings or looking into boxes. I can just about cope with sleighs being pulled by unicorns. But enter the disembodied talking head and the "elixir of life", and I struggle. Tom and I both struggled, and although we finished the book, we agreed it was TOO weird. Which is a shame because it started very promisingly. You probably know it and love it!

    1. I have never heard of "The Box of Delights" - thanks for the warning! I suppose it's the lack of emotional engagement I miss with the disembodied talking heads, et al. It is so much more interesting to read about the bad guys when they have depth of character, and motivations. The baddies in Ysabel were cardboard cutouts of baddies - bald heads, scarred faces, horns, and all.

  2. Thanks for the link. I laughed, too, at what you wrote about reading fantasy. I'm glad you have similar feelings about it! Well, I did enjoy The Hobbit when I was younger and sometimes I can get into a good fantasy story...but I am not sure what it is that will do it for me (why sometimes it bothers me and other times it doesn't).


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