a lovely mishmash of opinions interspersed with moments of clarity and vision by a vegan lesbian feminist mystery-loving, history-loving reader and writer.
I don't bother to write a synopsis of the book, because I think most people who review books on Goodreads already know what the book is about.
So, to dive right in: I was unaware initially that this is a young adult book, and while that doesn't necessarily mean it's going to be uninteresting to adults, in this case it means that Kay seems to try too hard to make the hero, Ned, current with his vocabulary, his clothes, his choice of music. So the dialogue becomes, at times, difficult: the word "really" is overused by pretty much everyone in the novel, and everyone just "googles" things. (I realize this is now an accepted verb, but in this novel it has the effect of showing Kay trying too hard to be up to date). Melanie turns statements into questions a lot, and an unfortunate number of brand names are flung around (though the brand name issue isn't as bad as I've seen in other novels, not all of them young adult). It also leads to an unevenness in POV. Though the majority of the novel is told in limited third person (from Ned's perspective) there are a number of times when we get a little closer than usual into Ned's head, and second-person POV comes out: "Could scare you more, that thought." (p. 382) "You had to call it fear, really" (p. 200) "Anger wasn't the only thing you could use" (386)- those are just three examples, but they stick out from the middle of third-person POV paragraphs, and it's jolting. All stories are contrived to some extent, but these things make the novel feel really contrived, like the author is just trying too hard. I am also not a fan of comma splices; there are many sentences that could be cut in two or could benefit from the use of a semi-colon used, but Kay uses commas instead.
The story itself is fairly interesting, but the book is too long. At a number of times it feels as if we are re-reading something we read before, and parts of the novel drag. I read that Ned's aunt and uncle are characters from a previous series Kay wrote, and some of the length seems a result of his wanting to add these two old characters to this new novel. Ned's aunt turns out to be important because of the family history that ties into the story, but there is too much banter and possibly too much inside joking. Kay also aims to keep us in suspense about why Ned is so involved in the story of Ysabel, Phelan and Cadell, but he leaves it too long. This contributes in part to the going-around-in-circles feel mentioned earlier.
The ending is kind of gross. When Melanie gets released from Ysabel's body, she kisses Ned, who is 10 years younger than she, on the lips. That's not a problem except he is a teenager and she is in her twenties, and then they think of sleeping together. What 24 or 25 year old woman wants to sleep with a 14 or 15 year old boy? That's just creepy. Where did that come from? Does Kay wish to somehow show or suggest that once Ned has completed his quest, as in the tales of centuries ago, he is now a man? (This is actually hinted at earlier in the novel.) That's a bit disturbing. Also disturbing is Kay's desire to not kill off any of the human characters (except one ornery Druid) until the very end (and they are characters who repeatedly die and return to life anyway and have lived for thousands of years) -- but animals are easily expendable. Maybe they're spirit animals, or maybe they're not, but even if they are just spirits, they are inhabiting the bodies of real animals, and thus, it's okay to kill them and not feel bad. The usual disregard for lives when it comes to non-human animals is highly apparent here and bothersome (pate' and leather coats are also featured as tasty and cool items, respectively). These are not killings that make a connection between human animals and non-human animals; these are simply things, characters, objects.
I also find the dialogue between Ned's aunt and mother to be particularly bothersome. They are condescending, irritating in the way they talk about all men being idiots, know-it-alls who beg the question: who wants to spend any time with these people? Fitting that they're sisters, but very unlikeable. While it's likely that their attitudes are intentionally created by Kay, their scenes feel contrived and actually rushed and too long at the same time. It feels like a lot of insider information you will only get by reading Kay's previous novels, and after reading this one, that is never ever something I will spend valuable time doing.
The history of Aix and particularly of Monte Sainte Victoire is fascinating, and I love Kay's description of setting (although the scenes involving the cathedral are confusing and difficult to picture; perhaps in part because I don't know the names of things in a church). It's very vivid and puts us there. Particularly the last few scenes on the mountain/cave are highly evocative.
I do try to finish every book I start, and this one is this actually a notch above some of the others I've struggled through. I can't say it's terrible - the idea of the story is strong, the setting is very strong, and Ned and the supporting characters (aside from his mother and aunt) and sympathetic enough (until the end when it's hard to tell if he's cheating on Kate or not -- he easily would if Melanie would have sex with him; and Kate goes from assertive to insecure, which feels out of character). The book just has too many problems, as mentioned above, for me to be very enthusiastic about it.