I don't usually talk about plot or story elements in my commentary because you can get that about anywhere, but I'm gonna digress this once. I'll get to what I found interesting in the actual writing in a moment so bear with me.
We've got a love triangle in Ysabel; two guys, both implied badasses, and a supremely hot chick. The three are continually reborn. The men compete for the lady's favor and to a degree all three are eternally miserable. A game of hide-and-seek is what keeps a potentially happy couple apart while the loser dies and gets to wait to be reborn and try again. Seriously; that's the plot. I'm not gonna hate, and the reason is because Kay has used this mechanic before. This story is set in the same history (perhaps, that's the correct word) as The Fionavar Tapestry, Kay's three-volume epic fantasy. The difference in love triangle story mechanic is that in The Fionavar Tapestry the players were all from the A Legend. In Ysabel the players are all original to Kay (kinda--it is historical fiction after all).
With the Arthurian Legend I didn't need explanation or background info. But Ysable doesn't focus of the love triangle characters. We are given only the merest glimpse of their past and why we should care about them now or most importantly, how they came to be. Characters harp about the story of the love triangle (more on the harping forthcoming) but the book ended and I still didn't know anything about any of the three that truly made me care, who will win this game of hide and seek, what losing will mean to the loser.
I am usually turned off with a quickness to any adult fiction which cast a teenage protagonist as I can't help but roll my eyes at the thought of a kid saving the world, or overcoming a supremely powerful evil, or doing much of anything but going to school. But we must remember that Kay is, in fact, awesome. The stakes aren't so grand, but perhaps equally cliched; a human life is what's at stake. In trying to save this life our two teenagers, Ned and Kate, develop a romance and engage in some of the most insanely intelligent, witty, and completely unbelievable repartee ever captured on paper.
This is a very chatty book, and before I go further with that remark I am going to acknowledged that the coming criticism is completely ridiculous: Kay's dialogue is nothing short of absolute perfection.
In the real world, perfection doesn't exist; so too should it not exist in literature. Both Ned and Kate are far too mature to be believable considering their age. The phenomenal dialogue distracts from what could have been a better story. Not only Ned and Kate but all character frequently engage in brilliant dialogue. I would say, with no set back to the book at all, three to four characters could have been omitted, thus freeing up a good bit of the page count for development of our insubstantial love triangle characters. I could go on, but I'd come across as whinny that I can't write dialogue anywhere near as Kay can. (He's so good it never felt real; people don't talk like that. We don't always say exactly the right thing, and have a witty reply to every asinine remark. The perfection hurts credibility.) Okay, so I did go on…
Kay's pacing is almost as good as his dialogue. He's a huge tease, he only gives you enough to keep you interested and then he'll finish a chapter demanding that you keep reading. It's a dirty trick and one he does well. I compare his control over the pacing to Elizabeth's Kostova's The Historian, a comparison I don't make lightly. While there is nothing in the plot as compelling as the latter's, "My dear and unfortunate successor," this is a book you will finish it in short order. I don't read fast or often, and it only took me three days.
If you can accept the fact that everyone in the book is a more amazing orator than any Roman politician of antiquity, MLK, or Bill Clinton then Kay's writing is beautiful. I haven't even read a quarter of his output but I'd bet good money that everything he writes is beautiful. I can't think of another word, and I've been trying. The book stands alone, although it's fun to see characters from the tapestry creep into it. It didn't so much feel like there were loose ends at the novel conclusion, rather some undeveloped issues, but Kay writes with such amazing forward motion and captivation that it may be a few days before you realize anything that I perceived to be a fault.
It's shallow, flawed and makes you regret all that could have been, but it's also a helluva lot of fun. Everyone should read Ysabel.