Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Ysabel = Ysabad

Guy Gavriel Kay's fantasy novel Ysabel is the story of Ned Marriner, the son of a famous photographer who tags along with his father for an extended shoot in the beautiful Provence region of France. Ned is fifteen, sarcastic, Canadian, and happy to be missing school so he can hang out in a villa with a pool in Provence. While Ned is exploring a cathedral that his father is preparing to shoot, he meets an American girl named Kate Wenger. Kate is a history nerd, but Ned is attracted to her nonetheless, and flirty banter ensues (and unfortunately doesn't stop, but more on that later...). Things turn fantastical when Ned and Kate encounter a mysterious figure lurking in the cathedral. Ned suddenly develops powers of intuitive understanding (because of some important traits that run in his family, we find out) that reveal the man is centuries old. A long lost aunt shows up and cautions Ned that he has walked into a story that has been repeating itself for thousands of years. One encounter with a giant stag-horned-man-creature later, and Ned and Kate's stay in Provence gets a lot more interesting. Well, not really. 

Yes, my glibness is intentional. I had a really hard time getting through this one. Everything was perfectly clear, and I never got confused, but I found the writing style really grating, even for a novel that (I think) could be classified as a young adult novel, though I realize it is not marketed as one. 

Ned's sarcasm and the constant jokey banter between all the characters is extremely tedious and gets old really fast. I also wondered if the gratuitous mentions of Ipod, Google, and Coke earned Kay some extra cash for product placement. I think Kay tries a little too hard to place his fantasy world in this world, which is one of the things that the book is praised for in critical reviews I have found, but for me it just doesn't work. The pop-culture references come off as Kay trying to be cute, not an honest attempt at creating his own world.

For example, on page 134: "Ned wondered if Stephen King had ever encountered a figure with stag horns under a watchtower. Maybe he had. Maybe that was how he got his ideas. Ned doubted it."

This passage made me cringe. It took me out of the story and reminded me I was reading a novel instead of keeping me immersed in the world. By citing another fantasy/horror author, the sentence says "LOOK AT ME. I AM ANOTHER FANTASY NOVEL. GET IT?" And what is the payoff here? A cute joke? Okay, I guess I get it, but I think it is harming the story by being too oppressive to the reader's experience. I thought there were a lot of passages like this where Kay could have showed some restraint on the cute jokes and funny pop-culture references and just tell his story. In fact, the line "Ned doubted it" is rather telling, I think, in illustrating Kay's obsession with constantly undercutting everything in this novel with weak humor. He even undercuts his weak humor with more weak humor. It shows how pointless this little joke really is. 

To be fair, there is a nice fantastical story buried in here, and Kay's descriptions of Provence are both beautiful and ominous and do create the illusion of being in a lucid dream. I am not sure why Kay feels the need to constantly undercut himself and take us out of that dream by shoving Ipods, Cokes, Stephen King, Google, and joke after painful joke into our faces. It is clearly a conscious decision. But I think it's miscalculated. I read a lot of reviews for this book, and there are many people that obviously disagree with me, but as a fellow crafter of fiction, I think Kay made some poor judgements with this novel. I think he had a decent story, but made some tactical errors in executing it.