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“Ysabel” by Guy Gavriel Kay


Kay’s next book was atypically set on modern-day Earth rather that a historical parallel Earth, although it was still a fantasy and still featured plenty of historical elements. The novel’s hero is young Ned Marriner, a 15-year old boy from Canada enjoying a vacation in Provence while accompanying his father, a famous landscape photographer working on a book about the Provencal landscape. While wandering around the otherwise deserted medieval cathedral his father is photographing he meets a fellow teenager, a female exchange student from New York. Their conversation is interrupted by them spotting a furtive intruder in the cathedral – a mysterious man who breaks into an ancient crypt and quickly emerges again, puzzled by what he finds there. Catching the teenagers watching him, he warns them to mind their own business, threatens them obliquely, makes a few mysterious comments then leaves but somehow Ned feels compelled to continue to investigate. He doesn’t realise he’s just become entangled in the latest chapter of a supernatural story that has been reoccurring regularly ever since Greek and Roman explorers and armies first encountered the ancient Celtic population of Provence. Through the millennia two resurrected men have been destined to compete again and again for the love of the titular Ysabel, the Celtic woman they first competed over so many years ago. Unfortunately for Ned and his friends and family he also finds himself entangled in the story – he must find the resurrected Ysabel before the others do or else one of his innocent companions will lose her life. Fortunately, although he doesn’t realise it at first, Ned has latent psychic powers passed down in the family and he also gets some additional supernatural assistance from a couple of other characters who previously appeared in Kay’s “Fionovar Tapestry” series.

The plot of the novel is a bit of a departure for Kay, although there have been elements of mystical Celtic fantasy in some his previous books (“Last Light of the Sun”, for example), Ysabel is unusual in that it focuses on those elements without the political intrigues and clashes of civilisations that were the focus of most of his other works. Rather than dealing directly with the clash of civilisations as in The Lions of Al-Rassan this book deals with the aftermath of the clash of civilisations, with the resurrected spirits still attempting to fight cultural battles that were lost thousands of years ago. Their quixotic quest is a definite contrast to the modern world that Ned Marriner and his friends live in. The plot never quite has the depth of Tigana or The Lions of Al-Rassan but it is still an entertaining and compelling read once it gets past the slightly clumsy and unconvincing opening. Fortunately, the end of the book is stronger than the start and overall it is quite a good plot although it can’t help but feel a bit contrived at times.

The characters are interesting and likeable, with the two antagonists both being fairly charismatic, and although they are opposed to Ned’s efforts to thwart their efforts to possess Ysabel, they are never really evil, just obsessed. Ned is a fairly accurate portrayal of a teenager jolted from mild apathy at a dull family holiday into a desperate quest and his companions are reasonably interesting characters as well (although they don’t have as much depth as many of Kay’s past characters). Where the characterisation is occasionally slightly unconvincing is in Ned and his family’s reactions to the supernatural events around them in the early parts of the book, where they are either unconvincingly credulous or foolishly determined to try to carry on with normal life when they know something strange is going on.

One of Kay’s strengths has always been his worldbuilding and although he doesn’t have to describe a new fantasy world here, he does do an excellent job of conveying the culture and spectacular scenery of Provence. The description of the ancient civilisations that gave rise to the recurring conflict are also evocative, even if there have been so many Celtic-themed fantasies that some elements start to seem a bit clichéd. One slight flaw in the world-building is that Kay’s attempts to emphasise the modern setting sometimes feel a bit overdone – some of the frequent references to e-mails or iPods feel a bit incongruous as if Kay is trying to hard to write a contemporary novel.

In summary, this is a very entertaining book despite not having the depth of Kay’s best work and having a few small flaws. It may be light reading, but it is fun light reading.

Rating : 8 / 10

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