Wednesday, May 02, 2007

'Ysabel' by Guy Gavriel Kay

For well over a decade now I have classed Guy Gavriel Kay as my favourite author. I have thoroughly enjoyed all his books with only one of them ('A song for Arbonne') being, in my estimation, merely very good. His last book - 'The last light of the sun' - was fantastic, the 'Sarantine Mosaic' (two books: 'Sailing to Sarantium' and 'Lord of Emperors') was outstanding, 'The Lions of Al-Rassan' (currently being made into a movie by Ed 'The Last Samurai' Zwick) was great and 'Tigana' remains the best book I have ever read. So to say that I had high expectations of this book is a complete understatement.

My first impressions (before reading the actual book) were that 'Ysabel' is a much slimmer work than any of his previous books (except possibly 'The Wandering Fire' - the slimmest of the three volumes which make up the epic 'Fionavar Tapestry' - but that is a third of a story, this is a stand alone novel) and a slight worry in that this story, unlike all his previous works, is set in this world - all the action takes place in 21st century France. But neither of these issues is actually important. It may be different to his previous works, but is not any poorer because of this.

There may be some 'spoilers' in what I am about to say, but I will keep them minor and will not reveal anything that will spoil your enjoyment of the book. Promise.

All GGK books are about people. Sure, some of those people are caught up in world changing events, but the heart of the books is the people and how they change, act and interact, rather than being too concerned with the changes in the world - indeed, the Lions of Al-Rassan concludes with an epic battle between two nations and the book ends without revealing which nation triumphed (ok, so it tells us in the epilogue, but the main point of the ending is that two friends ended up on opposite sides in the battle and that one had to kill the other - it actually didn't matter which side 'won'). Ysabel is no different, it is primarily a story about a 15 year old boy, Ned Marriner, the relationships within his family and the ancient and supernatural events that he gets caught up in - and how he (and his family relationships) changes as a result of the events.

I think having the main character as a 15 year old is a brave move for GGK. In all of his previous books, the main characters have been adults - thinking like adults, behaving like adults, having adult responsibilities, dealing with adult relationships, etc. Here we have Ned, a teenager with teenage responsibilities (e.g. homework), teenage interests (iPod, music, etc.), teenage desires (girls...) and teenage attitudes thrown into a world where he has more intuitive understanding of events than all the adults around him. Not that he understands anything, but that's where things get interesting. All previous GGK books have involved some degree of sexual politics and in a few of them a sexual liaison has been pivotal to the plot development. By having a (not sexually active) teenager as the main character, GGK has forced himself to approach the relationships between the main characters in a completely different way. Here, all the main relationships are family ones, putting a very different spin on things. But this is good.

This emphasis could put Ysabel in the same playing field as J.K. Rowling and Phillip Pullman, although the story is much more subtle than the Harry Potter books and less epic than the His Dark Materials books. Although the themes of children approaching adulthood in Pullman's books are echoed here.

They say that all stories should have a beginning, a middle and an end. This story doesn't really follow that pattern. Two thirds of the way through the book I felt like I was still reading the beginning, but the apparent lack of 'middle' and the brevity of the 'end' were not problems in any way - the main story in the book is a slow-building thing which gradually gives us information and gives us clues which all come together at the end. Indeed, I suppose the book is much more of a 'thriller' than most novels that fall into the category of 'fantasy'.

In that sense, Tigana was the perfect fantasy. The beginning set up the premise - there was a seemingly impossible objective that the various princpal characters were setting out to achieve. The middle described all the actions they took to achieve the goal and the ending was the point where everything came together to actualy achieve the goal, and a final - utterly gobsmackinly masterful - twist in the tail. In Ysabel the objectives are not clear for at least the first half of the story - the main characters simply get caught up in the midst of extraordinary events - and even when one of the objectives becomes clear, most other things remain obscured until the closing two chapters of the book. We simply get swept up in events and carried along at an ever increasing pace until the conclusion.

While I really enjoy the fantasy elements of GGK's books - getting to explore fantasy worlds which sometimes reflect and sometimes differ from our world - the heart of these books is always the characters. Here we have a group of perfectly realised and totally believable people in extraordinary circumstances. Masterful.

This book managed to live up to my high expectations. I can happily recommend this to anyone.

Sigh, probably another three years to wait for the next GGK book...

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