Book Review: Ysabel

Ysabel Book Cover

Ysabel Book Cover

So though I haven’t posted a book review in awhile, I’ve actually been reading voraciously! In fact, I can’t seem to check books out fast enough at our local public library. (Or return them…pretty typical of me, actually.)

In any case, one of the books I’ve recently read was Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay. It was published in 2008 by Canadian author Kay, and is one of the 12 books  he has written. As with his other books, it can be described as mixture of history and fantasy. I love history and I also love fantasy/supernatural/sci-fi books so this seemed like a good choice!

The book is set in present day Provence (France), though it weaves elements of a time many thousands of years prior ,when the Celts/Celtics and the Romans were battling it out in this part of Europe. I actually hadn’t realized that this occurred in Southern France so this alone piqued my interest.

Without giving any spoilers away, I’ll note that the main character- a teenager named Ned- stumbles upon an ancient mystery in which he is intimately involved on account of having some very supernatural faculties of his own. It is indeed a mystery and played out in a compelling enough fashion that I at least finished the story, finding a mostly satisfactory ending once I had.

The problem I had with Ysabel is that even for a fantasy novel, I found myself in disbelief over some of the more prosaic elements that Mr. Kay used to build the story out. For instance, the whole of Ned’s travel mates, which include his photographer father, an aunt and uncle, three of his father’s adult staff, and his mother were heavily involved in the story and fully knowledgeable of the fantastical occurrences that were playing out in Ned and his young friend Kate’s worlds. I find it hard to believe that so many from the adult world could be convinced so quickly such that they played huge parts in the story. Some of the best mysteries- from Sherlock Homes & Dr. Watson, to the Hardy Boys, to Nancy Drew (by the by, her beau was named Ned…coincidence?)- typically rely upon an intrepid pair to ferret out the sometimes mundane, sometimes supernatural elements of the plot’s twists and turns. The mystery seems all the more compelling because it collides so jarringly with the oblivious-ness and normalcy of the lives of the bulk of the people around them. But a whole gaggle of people traipsing about Europe to figure this out? Count me felt skeptical.

I also felt like the plot was cobbled together a bit “clunkily”. Two of the characters just happened to be super informed of the history of the area for just this time frame….of all the 1000s of years of history that have occurred in the area? There were also lots of moments where other characters were enigmatic and ambiguous for huge swathes of the story but then all of a sudden everything was explained. I think the trick to a good mystery is to provide just enough clues that if one is observant, one could actually gain an inkling of how it will all end…or at least stay interested enough to want to. Mr. Kay walked the line rather too closely, I think.

The bottom line is that many of Mr. Kay’s fans applaud him for his story-telling. Once I dug down, I also found that many of them felt as I did…that Kay was not at his best with this novel. Well, for being as prolific as he is, I guess the odds are good that one or the other of his books wouldn’t be at 100%.

As noted, I finished the book mostly satisfied with the ending, even if the getting there wasn’t as pleasing. I can also say that as a result of reading it, my interest has been caught by an era of history that I hadn’t previously considered. I look forward to perhaps reading other tales by Mr. Kay and doing some additional historical research into this locality/time frame.

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