Saturday, November 01, 2008
World Fantasy Award Nominee: Ysabel
Guy Gavriel Kay
Nominated for the World Fantasy Award: Novel
It is a simple thing to say that a reader will either like a book or a reader will not. Perhaps it is so obvious and banal that it does not need to be said because it could be set about any book at all, sometimes it feels the appropriate thing to say. Ysabel is a novel that, for me, feels like it could have gone either way. I have heard of Guy Gavriel Kay for years and everything I have heard has been quite positive. Until Ysabel, I had never read anything Kay published and I have found that novelists who are considered well respected and perhaps a touch more literary can be a tough sell. This is backwards, but stepping into a new author's work can be an exciting and scary thing, especially when that author is one a reader is expected to like.
So. Ysabel. The novel starts out simple enough. Ned Marriner is a fifteen year old boy spending part of the year in France (Ned is Canadian) because his father is a famous photographer and his father "is shooting Saint-Sauveur Cathedral in Aix-en-Provence" (from the jacket copy). Ned's mother is out of the picture as she is currently in Darfur working with Doctors Without Borders. Ned is a sharp kid, full of wit and warmth and intelligence. He's quick on his feet. Ned meets Kate at the Cathedral. Kate is his age and is a self-professed geek with a passion for history. Kate is an American exchange student. In a foreign country a teenaged boy meeting an attractive girl who speaks his language is a set up for friendship and budding romance. Kay starts the characters down this path, but he gives them an additional reason to spend time together.
They also meet another man in the Cathedral. On the surface this should not be a surprise as it is a famous Cathedral but the Cathedral is closed for Ned's father to shoot it. Kate snuck in. The man also should not be there. He attempts to warn Kate and Ned off, to get them away. He tells them they are stepping into someplace they don't belong, into something that could get them killed. He is not a good man, he tells them. He has killed children. But Ned has some preternatural sense and is bold. He tells the man things that Ned should have no way of knowing. This is the beginning. What follows touches Ned's entire family and is a part of a much older story.
Ysabel touches on myth, history, magic, and family and does so with a quiet grace that before the reader can blink he or she is captivated by the storytelling of Guy Gavriel Kay. The basic points of Ysabel seem so simple, so easy that there is no way Ysabel can possibly be anything special, and yet, GGK is so damn good that fifty pages pass and we want, no, we need to keep reading late into the night. The only knock on the novel is that a modern teenager, Ned, seems too smart, witty, and capable with adults and in a very serious situation - and on top of that, everyone is smart, witty, and capable. It seems overkill. But, beyond that, Ysabel stands out from the crowd.
Every so often I had to stop, close the book, stare at the cover, and marvel at how good Ysabel is. I have no idea how this novel compares to the rest of Guy Gavriel Kay's work, but Ysabel feels like it has to be a standout novel. If it isn't, then what that tells me is that Guy Gavriel Kay is one of today's masters and deserves to be read. On the basis of Ysabel, I can see why he earned the nomination for the World Fantasy Award.