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Some Thoughts On The Trouble With Fantasy - Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay [Sep. 7th, 2008|04:33 pm]
Young Geoffrey
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The Lord of the Rings is probably my favourite novel and Neil Gaiman's The Sandman is a comic I suspect I'll re-read periodically for the rest of my life, and yet I can honestly say that — as a genre — fantasy almost always leaves me cold and often freezing to death.

So it was with some trepidation, a few months back, that I selected Guy Gavriel Kay's recent novel Ysabel, a prize I won from a short-list of titles offered by BBAW Award-nominated LJer calico-reaction, in a contest she was running (a direct link to which I'm damned if I can locate).
Ysabel
Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay
Penguin Canada
The book sat on a shelf for some weeks after it was delivered to me but I finally read it in August. And now, here it is early September, and I am only now getting around to putting my thoughts about down on virtual paper.

Though the book tops 500 pages, the narrative takes place over a period of about a week, eschewing fantasy's typical penchant for epic in favour of intensity and the personal.

The story's protagonist is 15 year-old Ned Mariner, a Canadian kid from (if memory serves) Ottawa, doing time in France while his father Edward, a reknowned photographer,works on his next coffee-table book in Provence.

Ned wanders inside the cathedral his father is shooting, meets an American-exchange student and self-admitted geek named Kate. Shortly thereafter the two of them encounter a mysterious, knife-wielding man who emerges from a hole in the cathedral's floor and the adventure begins. Warned to leave because the pair "have blundered into the corner of a very old story", Ned and Kate flee to a garden where Ned is taken by an ancient carving of a woman which the nameless man claims to have carved.

Typical of fantasy, Ned's family is not a normal one and neither is Ned himself a normal kid. Not only is his mother a doctor, working in war-torn Sudan with Médecins sans frontieres, but her long-estranged sister — Ned's aunt Kim — possesses some sort of psychic powers, apparently a gift of her Celtic blood. Before long, it is clear that Ned too possesses magical abilities and he and Kate find themselves, seemingly by chance, caught up an ancient battle between two immortals battling for the love of an equally-immortal Druid priestess.

Needless to say, there is a lot more to the plot and there are a number of other well-drawn characters in the Mariner entourage. But I cordially dislike writing plot-summaries as a rule and — truth to tell — I needed to consult Wikipedia to write what little I have. A month down the line, only the vaguest outline of the story remain in mind.

In fact, Kay writes very well. He ignores the temptation to "make strange" through the use of archaic language or other hackneyed distancing devices, choosing instead clear prose and short sentences and paragraphs to propel the narrative, giving a modern feel even to those scenes set in the past. And despite the novel's length but very short narrative time-span, Ned's rapid coming-of-age is believable and sometimes moving.

As a teenager, I might well have thought this a wonderful novel. (Indeed I suspect it would be appreciated by "young adults" of either sex, as Kay introduces us to at least as many strong female characters as male.) But reading it mid-way through my 44th year, Ysabel failed to stay with me once I had turned the final page.

Perhaps my coolness toward this book, and to modern fantasy in general, is revealed by the synopsis above. Unlike the fully-realized mythology of Tolkien or the universe-spanning strangeness of Gaiman's Sandman, but very much like stories of alien abduction near Area 51 or novels about urban elves or vampires, and despite the many undeniable qualities of Ysabel, I am unable to take the fantasy elements seriously — Kay's world is recognizably our own and so the concept of a pair of Druid and ancient Roman immortals battling through time seem, well, at once extraordinary and mundane, making for a literary stew whose ingredients don't make for a satisfying meal.

While I was able to suspend disbelief as I read, and even felt for the plight of the novel's characters, once the book was done, the story slipped from my mind like a friend's not-so-interesting dream recounted over drinks at a bar.

If you enjoy urban fantasy, Ysabel is probably a very good one, but I don't think it belongs to a genre to which I will return any time soon.
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Comments:
[User Picture]From: beable
2008-09-08 01:47 am (UTC)

Ysabel vs other Kay Books

I enjoy Kay's stuff but I know what you mean. I read Ysabel and did enjoy it while I was reading it, but I have felt no urge to reread it and the story never did crystallize into anything that touched my core. Whereas the first book of his that I read (Tigana) I've still held onto, and re-read several times, and parts of it do still reach down deeply.

Kim and Dave are both in one of Kay's earlier books, the Fionavar Tapestry, a trilogy comprised of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road. They're also on my beloved books list but I know alot of Kay fans who dislike them. They start in our world and move into another world as part of the story - one with mostly Arthurian and Celtic mythology but a fair bit pulled from many, many other sources.



Edited at 2008-09-08 02:06 am (UTC)
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-09-08 12:55 pm (UTC)

Re: Ysabel vs other Kay Books

Hey, thanks for the edit! :)

Your comment that it didn't "touch your core" makes me think of Tolkien's concept that a fantasy ought to be set in a "secondary creation", a wholly-realized elsewhere/elsewhen. He managed it with Middle Earth — and somehow, even though much of it was set in the present-day, Gaiman managed the same with Sandman. And I suppose Rowling did too, now that I think of it and despite my loathing for the final book.
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[User Picture]From: beable
2008-09-08 11:38 pm (UTC)

Re: Ysabel vs other Kay Books


Your welcome :-) I saw your post on the subject after this one, hence the edit.

I don't know that Rowling did. I enjoyed the HP books, but I found a lot of her world-building annoying. I do agree about Sandman though. But wholly-realized may be the key element there. I got sick of high fantasy after reading what seemed like an endless supply of Tolkien knock-offs.

A friend has recently recommended the George R R Martin series, but I haven't tried it yet.


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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-09-09 01:23 am (UTC)

Re: Ysabel vs other Kay Books

I figured the edit was due to something like that; and again, I appreciate it.

I think wholly-realized is it. And now that I think of it, Gaiman sort of reversed the process.

He took the already-extant "universe" of DC's long-underwear brigade and extended it to the point where you and I could actually close our eyes with the lights out and imagine that Morpheus just might pay us a visit after we fell asleep.

And of course, he told some damned fine tales, to boot.

I do keep hearing about Martin's stuff, but I'm kind of afraid of it just because of it's length. I hate like hell the idea of getting into another enormous series only to be let down at the end.
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[User Picture]From: vienneau
2008-09-10 03:17 am (UTC)

Re: Ysabel vs other Kay Books

Martin's stuff is also fantastic. Not as good as Erikson (see below), but it was the other half of my "enlightenment". The series seems stalled though - it's been years since the last book. I'd hesitate before committing, though reading the first one probably wouldn't hurt.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-09-10 03:50 am (UTC)

Re: Ysabel vs other Kay Books

I'm thinking about it, I am. Also, I remember his story, "Sand Kings" scared hell out of me many years ago.
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[User Picture]From: vienneau
2008-09-12 11:41 pm (UTC)

Re: Ysabel vs other Kay Books

Strangely, I never read short stories as a kid (or now), but I read Sand Kings and remember it. I don't know if that's because it stuck out, or because I was told it was good. Or was there only one good short story in the 70s?
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-09-13 11:56 pm (UTC)

Re: Ysabel vs other Kay Books

The first "adult" book i read was the The Science Fiction Hall of Fame Vol. 1. And I'll never forget both the pleasure of the story and the sheer sense of pride I felt (I think I was in grade 3) when I'd struggled through Stanley G. Weinbaum's "A Martian Odyssey."

Anyway, I've been hooked on short fiction ever since.

I read "Sand Kings" when it was first published in Omni. I don't remember any other stories from that magazine (though I know I read a lot of them), so my guess is that it was when hell of a piece of work (from the 80s, mind you).
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[User Picture]From: babyeraserhead
2008-09-08 02:43 am (UTC)
Personally, I always find some sort of problem with Guy Gavriel Kay.
For the longest time, I couldn't put a finger on what it was... I suspect what bothers me is that he's got his climax points all over the place.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-09-08 12:57 pm (UTC)

Ysabel, Too?

The more I think about Ysabel the more I feel as if, at some point, I've read something else by Kay many years ago, but I'm damned if I can remember the title, let alone specific plot-points.

Have you read Isabel? I ask because I thought its structure, at least, had only one climax — right at the end, where it should have been.

(Howdy, by the way!)
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[User Picture]From: strider7901
2008-09-08 03:45 am (UTC)
If I had more time, I would want to read those books. Minus LOTR because I've already read them! Hehe.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-09-08 12:59 pm (UTC)

You Can Always Go Back

You can never read The Lord of the Rings too often, in my experience. I pulled my battered copy off the shelf the other day and am already near the end of The Fellowship of the Ring. This twenty-something re-read is as fresh as was my first, back when I was 12 or so.
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[User Picture]From: vienneau
2008-09-10 03:15 am (UTC)
If you haven't already, Read. Steven. Erikson.

If you have, I've recently found another one that's like him (R. Scott Bakker).

I've read a lot of popular fantasy in my life (in the flavour of Eddings and Dragonlance), and it wasn't until I read Erikson that I realized just how identical most of it is, and how bland. Good for a younger me, but I should have left it earlier. I think Fantasy writing has been stuck in a Tolkien-inspired rut for the latter part of the last millenium, and now I can never go back - the stuff is just awful (the new stuff, not so much the Tolkien)!

Just a few months ago I read yet another book about a young male who turns out to have fantastic powers naturally gifted to him that he didn't realize and he's critical to defeating the great evil. It was awful...until the bad guys cut off his head and ate his brain in the final scene - but still, with that beginning, I couldn't be bothered to see how the next two books turned out.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-09-10 03:58 am (UTC)

I'd better Start Taking Notes

Hmm. Maybe I should create one of those post-dated entries, asking for book suggestions, get 'em all in one place.

Did Eddings write The Worm Orouborous? I was reading an essay by Ursula K. le Guin recently, and she mentioned that book as being one of those rare, utterly unique, fantasies. Or am I thinking of something else? Shit. I should create that post-dated entry!

Without having read much of it, I'm almost certain you're right about all the Tolkien rip-offs. Certainly I haven't come across another faux midieval story that hasn't reeked of theft. But I suppose that's the nature of any genre, isn't it? (You can't call Tolkien genre because he invented it! And also, he wrote a masterpiece.)

...yet another book about a young male who turns out to have fantastic powers naturally gifted to him that...

I sighed. Then I read, "until the bad guys cut off his head and ate his brain in the final scene..." and burst out laughing — guffawing, actually. It's hard to imagine how there could have been a sequel, but I guess neither you nor I will ever know.
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[User Picture]From: vienneau
2008-09-12 11:44 pm (UTC)

Re: I'd better Start Taking Notes

I believe the boy had "played his part" and the story was going to go in a totally different direction. A lot of series do this - they start with the same story for book 1 in order to get published, then they go crazy. Robert Jordan is an example of this.

Are actually asking whether someone wrote a book while connected to the Internet? If you haven't heard of it yet, boy are you in for a surprise when you find www.wikipedia.com! :-)

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Worm_Ouroboros

Eric Rucker Eddison in 1922 is a lot different from David Eddings from the 80s onwards.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/David_Eddings

As a teen in the 80s, all my nerd friends and I read Eddings' novels.
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2008-09-14 12:02 am (UTC)

Re: I'd better Start Taking Notes

I hang my head in shame. Though maybe I shouldn't. Unless Eddings has written some short fiction which showed up in best-of-the-year anthologies, I don't think I've read him any more than I have Eddison.

As an adult, do you still recommend Eddings?
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[User Picture]From: vienneau
2008-09-14 05:10 pm (UTC)

Re: I'd better Start Taking Notes

I believe many adults still enjoy Eddings. It may also be a better read when it's fresh (I read it a bunch of times as a youth). If you like a light easy read, it's pretty good, hence its continuing popularity and availability. It should be readily available at the library, so I'd get his very first book "The Pawn of Prophecy" and see if the style appeals.

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[User Picture]From: calico_reaction
2009-02-11 11:14 pm (UTC)
Interesting, but I see where you're coming from.

Fans of Kay cite TIGANA has his masterpiece, a book I haven't read but I've got and will eventually. The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, the one that tells Kim and Dave's story, is Kay's debut. You want to talk about a SHOCK of difference in browse in reading the debut after reading his latest. Wow. I personally was so not impressed (admittedly, I've only read the first book in the trilogy, but still).

Have you read any of Gaiman's novels? I personally really enjoyed AMERICAN GODS. There's also Charles de Lint to consider: SOMEPLACE TO BE FLYING is fantastic, and truly unique in terms of the fantasy/magical elements presented.

Both are contemporary/modern/urban fantasy, not quite in the same vein as YSABEL, but close enough. Aside from Tolkien and Gaiman's SANDMAN, what other books/authors linger with you long after you're done, and why? Obviously, it doesn't have to be fantasy. :)
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[User Picture]From: ed_rex
2009-02-12 01:02 am (UTC)

Kay and urban fantasy

I might have read the first book in the Fionavar Tapestry many years ago, but if I did it didn't impress me enough to read more of it.

I tried one of Gaiman's short-story collections some years ago, but it didn't impress me at the time — more than a little to my surprise since I did (and still do) think very highly of Sandman. And I've enjoyed de Lint when I've come across him, but can't say I'm a fan.

What do I like?

In terms of fantasy, Mervyn Peake's Gormenghast books are some of the strangest (and funniest) works of literature I've ever come across — utterly unlike anything else I've read.

Also, quite a few of Bradbury and Ellison's short stories (though I wonder whether I would still appreciate either of them as much now as when I was a teenager). After that, the list thins out pretty quick. Carroll's Alice books, of course (even if Tolkien might not classify them as fantasy), Richard A. Lupoff's juvenile/young adult werewolf novel, Lisa Kane stays with me as well.
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[User Picture]From: calico_reaction
2009-02-12 01:39 am (UTC)

Re: Kay and urban fantasy

Heh, I feel the same way about Gaiman's short stories. Comics, thumbs up. Short stories, thumbs down. Novels (the one I've read anyway), thumbs up. :)

If you get the chance, give AMERICAN GODS a shot. :) It's better than his shorts, believe me.
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