Friday, January 26, 2007


My speculative fiction book group has read a collection of fables and the Odyssey in order to talk about myths and legends as a sort of proto-speculative fiction, a forerunner of modern SF, or even the SF of its time. It's an interesting discussion to have, because as we surpass a century of "modern" SF, some of the earliest stories have a feel to them similar the ancient myths and legends. The speculative parts of the stories no longer hold up to any sort of examination and they remain as an artifact of the period they came from.

I don't know if Guy Gavriel Kay is any sort of mythographer, but the foundation on which his novels is built is the idea that myths and legends are manifestations of universal tropes--the important elements of individual myths are universal. It's very Campbellian, but Kay the novelist finds this to be fertile ground in which to work his art. And what he does, better than any writer I know, is take the awe-inspiring power of the mythological and legendary, and wrap up the thoroughly mundane in it. In most myths, any average person who gets in the way of the gods is usually made to regret their ill luck. But Kay tries to tell the legendary through the eyes of the generally powerless and point out how they are integral and key to the events of the myth and legend. Ordinary people touched by myth are not doomed in Kay's writing; they are, however, changed (usually physically and emotionally). This does not mean that Kay dumbs down his legends to where they are vapid--fortunately, Kay spends time working honestly through the complexities of the legends, and does it through the eyes of the mundane, so that the reader can see both the majesty of larger-than-life figures and their very humanity at the same time.

Kay's latest novel, Ysabel, is yet another example of the brilliance he employs in his craft. Ned Marriner, 15, is in Provence while his world-famous photographer father is working on an art book about the region. During a break, Ned meets a young girl named Kate in a cathedral in Aix, and she acts as an informal tour guide for him. Together they run into a strange, scarred man, who seems abnormally strong and, they eventually realize, some hundreds if not thousands of years old. Through their interaction with him, Ned and Kate find themselves drawn into the latest manifestation of a chain of events that has repeated itself for thousands of years. Because of the sheer lifetimes of the creatures involved and the magic that surrounds both their longevity and the circumstances that ensnare them, Ned and Kate find themselves trapped in a legend, whose horrible end they know and recognize may be their own ends as well.

But Kay does something different with Ysabel. At last, the novel takes place on the Earth think we know. And the magic which has such interesting properties in his other novels set in other places, is both weaker and more supernatural than the magic of the standard high fantasy. Instead, the force that moves the characters through the novel is equal parts fate and sheer human stubbornness. Ned and the characters that surround him are determined not to let the end they see coming actually arrive, though when they ask themselves what they think they might be able to do, they never know. Only when decision is required of Ned does he somehow know the right thing to do, because he has become part of the legend, the narrative that binds them all together. The two supernatural protagonists that Ned most often interacts with ask him repeatedly "Who are you?" and while he does not have an answer that suits him or them, he most often says "I'm in the story."

Kay is not a wonderful stylist; his words don't leap off the page. However, his skill does seem to lie in story-telling, creating a compelling narrative and populating it with three-dimensional characters. The pacing of his stories is immaculate--not a wasted word or effort--and the reader is simultaneously impatient to find out what happens next and breathless from the speed of the events in the narrative. In Ysabel, there is no real sense that any of the characters are evil, but they do have their dark sides. But this is not to say they are all boring either. They are individuals, wrapped up in events bigger than themselves and trying to win free. And because of Kay's art of building up the action and then setting it free, that we both want to linger with these people we like and also hurry them into whatever the narrative holds for them.

I admit it; I am a huge fan of Kay. I was elated to receive an early copy of this book, one I had been looking forward to since I turned the last page of his previous novel. I am predisposed to like what Kay writes, but I honestly believe in the power and art of his craft. I don't ever want to put down one of his books, and that surely reflects on his ability to tell a story.

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