Monday, April 09, 2007

Doorways to Elsewhere I: Review of Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Grade: B-

This is the first of a series of four (or maybe five) book reviews. The connecting thread is meant to be about passages from the modern world into the fantastic, a theme cliched enough to have metastasized into a modern subgenre or two, and generally consistent with a vaguely western European Roman-era mythology, back before the Wild Wood got systematically hacked down for farmland and you could find hidden pools and spooky old oaks where spirits might still hang out. Some people's hearts crave the sea, but I like the trees, maybe heakening some ancestral memory (if you believe that crap). I'd rather see the sun turning the leaves to fairy gold than witness thirst-induced mirages in the distance on the endless open water.

I tried to pick books that didn't suck (I do as a rule: life is short), but the first two (or three) of them compare better as lessons in writing, a lesson in voice, than they do on mythic themes. Ysabel was the how-not-to example. Normally, I like Guy Gavriel Kay. He's not afraid to try for beauty in his prose, and in most of the stories I've read, he manages to serve up melodrama that doesn't feel cheap. It's a nice trick, but his normal milieu--writing mythologized versions of history (his last novel was a gorgeous retelling of the life of Alfred the Great)--lends itself to that operatic sentiment. His latest has a contemporary setting, from which he tries to peek into the magical corners of history. I was looking forward to see what he'd do with more mundane tools, and it was, unfortunately, a more mundane story. It starts out nicely enough, with light tumbling through the fields and forests of Provence, but the sun goes down a little too soon.

We find ourselves in the viewpoint of 15-year-old Ned Marriner, who spends his time jogging, joking with his cardboard gang, acompanying his famous father, learning about himself, and being a Basically Good Kid. It's Ned's point of view that really dooms this story. The kid observes far too little, and banters lamely far too much. The text reads like a not-particularly-inspired character exercise. There's nothing very remarkable about Ned's voyage and discovery (even though there are remarkable things he's discovering), and most of the supporting cast seem to be hauled up and out of the stock character bin. Ned feels like some safely realized version of a young person--he doubts himself, gets into some PG-rated trouble, finds an innocent love interest,* and is never, ever an insolent self-involved little prick. It reads like the author tried to write something safe for parents to give to their teenagers, and instead just made it boring.

The story here is that Ned stumbles on some magical rivalry that has been going on for a couple of millenia: back in the days of the old forest, a Roman and a Celt fell in love with the same woman, and have been returning to fight for her affection over many lifetimes. The mechanics of this affair aren't abundantly clear, but are developed enough for the conclusion to work, barely. The better parts of the novel are the historical musings on this theme (Provence has always been a battleground, coveted by rival cultures, and Kay remains a good historical researcher), and in the characters of the two men and their titular love. When Ned stumbles into supernatural settings, the plot seems to swing into gear again, and these bits are interesting too. More action, more of the interesting people the story's ostensibly about, more of the good description, and less of the dull protagonist voice would have saved this one.


* I did like this character, but that's because I was projecting a lot onto her. I like cute nerd girls. (Good thing.)

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