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by Guy Gavriel Kay
Viking Canada
416 pages, $34.00

Reviewed by Joe Wiebe
posted Febrary 1, 2007

Toronto author Guy Gavriel Kay has both broken new ground and come full circle in his tenth novel, Ysabel. It is a departure for Kay in the sense that it is set in the present day and populated by characters talking on cell phones, googling on laptops, and listening to Coldplay on iPods. But Kay is a fantasy writer, so it isn’t long before the fantastical begins showing up.
Ysabel tells the story of Ned Marriner, the 15-year-old son of a famous photographer, Edward Marriner, who is on assignment in Provence, photographing historical sites for a book. Ned has been taken out of his Montreal high school for this extended spring trip, but is still expected to study and do homework while he’s there—specifically three essays he has to submit to his teacher by email.

Edward Marriner must be a major name in photography—this expedition to France includes not only Ned but three full-time assistants, Melanie, Greg, and Steve, all of whom are staying with the father and son in a rented villa. Ned’s mom is a doctor with Doctors Without Borders, currently stationed in Darfur.

Kay quickly establishes Ned as a believable teenager, albeit a very intelligent and well-rounded one, though that’s not too surprising given his genetics. In the opening pages of the book, as he wanders the interior of a cathedral in Aix-en-Provence which his father is photographing that morning, Ned’s mind is filled with thoughts of Melanie, who is always finding things for Ned to do—to keep him out from underfoot, Ned thinks with typical teenaged resentment. But at the same time, he is undeniably attracted to cute 25-year-old Melanie with the green streak in her hair (Is it meant to match her eyes? And is that also why she writes in green ink?), whose winks drive him crazy.

In that cathedral, Ned meets Kate Wenger, an American girl his own age on exchange in France. Ned’s reaction is again that of a typical teenaged boy: he teases her, calling her a geek when she raves about the history of the place, all while thinking, “She was kind of pretty, in a skinny-dancer way.” Indeed, soon it is Kate’s “dancer’s legs” that fills his thoughts.

But before much happens between the teenagers, Kay brings the fantastical side of the novel into play. A man with a knife emerges from a grate in the floor and sets the rest of the story in motion—a story of ancient, archetypal characters who return to life again and again to re-entangle themselves in a love triangle that goes back 2,500 years. Only this time, Ned and his family and friends become inextricably involved.

Ysabel is a hybrid of the two types of novels Guy Gavriel Kay has spent the past two decades and more writing. Kay began his career with The Fionavar Tapestry, a seminal Tolkienesque trilogy that won him acclaim and a large following. Published between 1984 and 1986, The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, and The Darkest Road tell the story of five young contemporary Canadians who are taken to another magical world called Fionavar, where they become involved in an epic quest to save that world from darkness.

But then Kay shifted focus. From 1990 to 2004, Kay wrote six stand-alone novels that “use the fantastic to examine themes of history.” Essentially, in each case, he created his own imaginary realm modelled after a specific time and place in history. His first such effort, Tigana, took fifteenth century Italy as its inspiration, and since then, he has tackled medieval France (1992’s A Song for Arbonne), Spain under Islamic rule (1995’s The Lions of Al-Rassan), the Byzantine Empire (a two-book series entitled The Sarantine Mosaic made up of 1999's Sailing to Sarantium and 2000's Lord of Emperors), and the Vikings, Welsh and Anglo-Saxons of a millennium ago (The Last Light of the Sun, 2004).

Kay’s “historical fantasies” set him apart from other fantasy authors because in addition to the verisimilitude of the places and eras he describes, he focuses on characterization in a genre that usually relies solely on driving action (even Tolkien spent relatively little time developing characters). Kay’s characters are well-rounded, complex individuals. As well, he adjusts his writing style to reflect the greater themes of the historical periods themselves—the romance and poetry of A Song for Arbonne is completely at odds with the harsh, violent tone of The Last Light of the Sun, as it should be.

Personally, I’ve never been much of a fan of “mythic fiction” or “slipstream fantasy,” as some describe books like The Fionavar Tapestry  or Ysabel, which involve the real world and fantastical realms colliding. It’s not a new convention—after all, C.S. Lewis employed it in The Chronicles of Narnia—and another Canadian, Ottawa author Charles de Lint, has written 30 such novels, many of which are set in an imaginary North American city called Newford, in which the regular world and mythical realms seem to overlap.

My usual complaint with these novels is that the real-world characters rarely react to the fantastical events they are experiencing in ways that real people would. Imagine if you discovered an elf living in your attic, or a doorway to magical realm under your stairs. Would you just go off on a merry adventure with said elf in said realm, or rather would you go to the authorities with your discovery, or perhaps even seek psychiatric help? I know I’m generalizing here, or more importantly, I’m taking the fun out of these stories. But that’s the way they usually make me feel.

In spite of these caveats, I have to admit that I enjoyed Ysabel. Kay is simply too good a writer. He establishes a potent challenge for his modern characters, who are well-drawn and consistently believable in their reactions. He gives them no option but to follow this course of fantastical events to its logical conclusion. This book is exciting—a real page-turner. Ned is a great character, complex, filled with teenage angst, unsure of himself yet overly confident at the same time, and so realistically portrayed. For instance, he thinks about what Kate is wearing or not wearing even in the most dangerous of situations—exactly what one would expect from a 15-year-old boy. As well, Kay’s descriptions of Provence are enticing, imbued with a sense of history almost overwhelming the modern world.

And for fans of Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry, there is an additional reason to read Ysabel—without revealing too much, I’ll just say here that you can expect to see some familiar faces.

Joe Wiebe is a Vancouver writer who recently completed his first novel, a literary baseball story called Mudville.

Copyright Joe Wiebe. All rights reserved.

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