I’ve always been a huge fan of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, and I bought a signed hardback copy of this the year that Ysabel was up for the World Fantasy award. So my expectations were rather high. Reading it was like opening a cherished bottle of expensive wine that’s been aging in the cellar for ten years, only to find that it’s turned to vinegar.
There are things I love about Kay’s work, and things I don’t generally love. I love his amazing characters and their heart-wrenching conflicts: Dianora’s conflicted love in TIGANA, the two friends on opposite cultures in LIONS OF AL RASSAN, and of course the mosaic artist and the empress in SAILING TO SARANTIUM. Brave and strong people have genuine conflicts that require excruciatingly difficult decisions.
His works are not easy; I tried to read TIGANA as a teen and couldn’t get through it because I simply could not understand what was going on. Kay might be a lot cleverer than the rest of us, because things he leaves out as “too obvious” are often things I’d rather have spelled out for me. If I were the sort of person who still reread books at least a dozen times, I might appreciate the nuances that don’t give themselves up easily, but since I only read books once, I’d really like to be able to understand it the first time. There were conversations in this story that I didn’t understand, off-hand references to scenes that happened a hundred pages earlier, intimations between two minor characters about events that are never clarified, etc.
Kay also revisits a passion for Celtic/Pagan mythology touched on in his earlier work. There are some genres of fiction in which plausibility is set aside for the sake of the familiar story, like “Would that man really jeopardize his contractor’s license for a romantic liaison with a bored housewife?” or “Would a foolhardy, inexperienced ensign with such a blatant disregard for authority really be put in charge of a starship?” In this novel, the characters are similarly manipulated for the sake of the story, except in this case, the story they’re the puppets of is the epic myth of two men fighting for the same woman, tearing a country apart for the sake of her favor. It has druids and wolves and mythic boars and sacrifice and headstrong beautiful redheads. You may wonder what a photographer and his teenage son have to do with that. Nothing, except that Kay makes them play parts. This forcing is the whole point of the novel, that modern rational people have been drawn into an ancient story even when they know it’s none of their business, they have better things to do, people warn them against it, and they have to really go out of their way to get involved. I can’t say I liked watching the main character act so contrary to his best interests. I prefer characters do things because they have motivations based on well-defined personality traits, not because ancient memes are manipulating them.
The characters were a lot weaker than I expected. Kay devotes the first half of the book to developing Nate’s relationship with his father’s team, but the time isn’t used well. We know Kate is a nerd, Nate likes to run, and Melanie is hyper-organized. We also know that there’s very little real conflict between any of the main characters, with the exception of Nate’s mother and his aunt (a conflict which I never quite believed nor understood.) Nate’s worried about his mother, who is a doctor in the Sudan, and I was hoping that this would inform his personality more, but when his mother shows up, all this potentially fascinating tension evaporates. The tension between Nate’s mother and aunt isn’t fully explained. His aunt is magical and his mother is not? Really? That’s the extent of their decades-long silence? And why has his uncle been a bodyguard/stalker for his sister-in-law? Their story, their background, was potentially far more interesting than the Ysabel story, but Kay just hints at it. And when we meet Nate’s mother, we find out she’s basically just a carbon copy of his aunt, who in turn is pretty much just like an older version of Melanie, who is like an older version of Kate. His mother didn’t even need to be there.
I never believed/understood why all of these people were willing to go to such great lengths to save a co-worker. The first half of the novel didn’t engender me the sense of connection it was meant to. Even when she disappears/changes, I’m not sure why anyone assumed there was anything to be done. I resented that Nate “just knew” it was even possible, that he “just knew” things. I’ve accepted that stylistic technique in other fantasy novels, where the main character follows supernatural hunches, but it seems too weak and facile for a master like Kay.
This isn’t a bad book in the grand spectrum of novels, or even in the spectrum of fantasy novels, but had nothing of what I hoped for from a Guy Gavreiel Kay novel. Other novelists can get away with a contrived plot and simplified characters, but from the author of THE LIONS OF AL RASSAN, I expected a far superior work.