Wednesday, May 21, 2008

[Lisa's Take] Ysabel - Guy Gavriel Kay

I actually jotted a few notes about how I wanted this review to go when I was only half way through Ysabel. Now that I’ve finished the book and come back to those notes, I find them significantly less clever or applicable than I first thought them. The book’s second half and end game were moving enough that I don’t feel the least desire to be glib or dismissive. At the same time, I’m having a hard time getting a full review down, so bear with me.

The basic premise of Ysabel is this: 15 Year Old Ned Marriner is on vacation in Southern France with his father, a famous photographer. While exploring a cathedral that his father is taking pictures of, Ned has a run in with a strange, supernatural man. From there he, his friends and family become embroiled in what seems to be a mystical re-enactment of historical events. The story roams all over the countryside around France’s Aix-en-Provence and explores a number of real events and ruins.

Ysabel is a good book. It reads very quickly, is interesting and involving, has very good characters, and keeps you guessing. That said, I’m still going to have to file it into the “candy” category, rather than the “solid fantasy” category. It’s right on the line, but it just doesn’t quite stand up to the heavy-hitters of the fantasy world... I think maybe if it were billed as YA fiction it would be weighty enough to cross that line, but in the All Growed Up Fantasy league it can’t quite hold its own.

So what holds it back? The biggest glaring thing that put me off is the copious, copious pop-culture references. I understand that the author was trying to juxtapose the current state of the world with the deep, meaningful, historical events, but it detracted overall from the book. Amazon, iPods, Guild Wars, jpegs, google, Coldplay... if you can get over parts of the story sounding like a commercial, you’ll still be left wondering how the book will hold up in 5 or 10 years when this stuff is obsolete. Does he have a draft of the book that has tags MadLibs style? Will a 10th anniversary edition with updated hip references be printed? I think a similar feel could have been created without being quite so specific.

The other thing that put me off is that the book really did lean towards YA, like I mentioned above. The protagonist is 15, which doesn’t mean the book has to be rated PG-13, but is often the case. Privilege of the Sword is a good example of 15-year-old star that’s definitely still an adult novel. Nix is another that’s more like Ysabel. Cursing was glossed over, sexuality was... somewhat addressed, but mostly in an sideward or askance fashion. A very 15-year-old fashion. These are obviously minor points, but they’re the easiest to put my finger on and explain. They and a few other, harder to define things collaborated to make me less emotionally involved than I obviously should have been – less involved than the author expected me to me. This is often a problem for me in YA fiction. The result is that in the end of the book when I wanted my heart to be aching, when I wanted to be trying not to drip tears on the pages... I was just there. Reading. Absorbing words. Being told by the author what it should feel like, rather than experiencing it myself. It was a bit frustrating, to say the least.

Still, overall the book was very good, and it did pack an emotional punch, though somewhat dulled down. Maybe an emotional shoulder-clip, like when you walk through a door crooked and the frame catches you. The characters were strong, the dialog was excellent, and Kay’s descriptions of the countryside were evocative. I know just wanked philosophical about some the flaws, but don’t let the lengthy discussion deter you from reading it – Ysabel is absolutely worth the (very short) time required to read it.

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