Saturday, January 7, 2023


Guy Gavriel Kay
Completed 1/7/2023, Reviewed 1/7/2023
3 stars

This sweet YA novel was decent fare, but not what I expected from this author.  I thought his The Lions of Al-Rassan was brilliant, with amazing prose weaving history and fantasy together.  This fantasy book weaves the present with the distant past, but it doesn’t have the gorgeous prose of “Lions”.  I did find myself engaged in the story despite several issues.  According to reviews I read afterwards, some of the characters appeared in an earlier novel by Kay and make references to that work.  I didn’t notice anything really missing, but I often found myself feeling as lost as the main character.  This book won the 2008 World Fantasy Award and was nominated for a few others.  

Ned is a fifteen-year-old Canadian boy visiting the Provence region of France with his famous photographer father.  At a shoot at a cathedral, Ned meets Kate, a girl his age from New York there on a foreign exchange program.  When they explore the cathedral, they meet a strange man with some magical powers.  He warns them stay out of it.  Out of what, the two teens don’t know.  It eventually becomes clear that there is battle between this and another man for the right to love a woman named Ysabel.  The first man contains the spirit of a pre-empire Rome, the other and Ysabel, the spirits of two Celts.  They return every so often to renew their love battle, and this time Ned seems to be involved.  The thing is no one really knows how.  As the story unfolds, Ned gets deeper and deeper into the conflict, manifesting his own psychic and magical abilities.

The star of this book is Ned’s relationship with those around him:  Kate, his parents, his estranged Aunt Kim and Uncle Dave, and his father’s staff.  Being a teenager, he’s somewhere between child and adult.  So it makes his relationships with these people very interesting, both playful and intense.  I liked how Ned’s father talks to him as an adult, and as a child, which Ned recognizes by facial expressions alone.  Ned’s mother is in Darfur with Doctors without Borders.  When they talk on the phone there’s the definite weirdness of a boy who wants to be independent while still longing for his mother.  Ned is also a jokester, always wanting to make people laugh.  This adds some well-deserved hilarity to the strange and increasingly scary events happening around him.  

What I didn’t like in this book was the mystery of what was really going on and how Ned was a major player in it.  It felt like there were so many internal thoughts and external discussions about what they didn’t know.  It got to be repetitive and annoying, right down to the climax where the Celts and the Roman are talking way above Ned’s head.  I also felt the prose was pretty standard and not nearly as mature as in “Lions”.  I realize this is a YA novel, however, that doesn’t mean an author should skimp on the style.  

But in the end, I found the book to be really sweet and wholesome.  It’s kind of a feel-good novel where you like all the characters, even the “bad” ones.  In fact, there are few really bad characters, mostly people dealing as best they can with fate.  I give this book three stars out of five.  It’s a good, quick read with empathetic characters, a good amount of action, and a very interesting plot.  I had to knock it down because in various places, I simply got sick of the “I don’t know what’s going on” stuff.  

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