Monday, 27 September 2010

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Ysabel was something of a surprise. I’m not really quite sure what I was expecting - perhaps more along the lines of Kate Mosse’s Labyrinth, I suppose - but what  we get is good Young Adult fantasy. I'm not sure if that was the intended audience, but it's certainly suitable.

The setting is Aix-en-Provence in southern France, a city and region steeped in Romano-Celtic history that was also a favourite with Cezanne, who liked  to paint Mont Saint-Victoire.  Sixteen-year-old Canadian Ned Marriner is visiting with his photographer father. It’s during  school termtime, so Ned is  expected to amuse himself , but also to complete school assignments including keeping up with his running. His father’s young-ish assistant Melanie keeps an eye on him alongside her other duties, and tends, Ned feels, to organise his time too thoroughly: she  not only buys him a mobile phone so that he can be kept tabs on, she programmes it with the numbers of everyone in the team, a task that Ned feels, with some justification, that he is equal to himself. So he's almost pleased when he meets a girl of about his own age in the Cathedral, since a friend no-one else knows gives him a small glow of independence.

However both Ned and Kate, his new friend, are more than a little taken aback when a man appears in the Cathedral, someone who both feels rather threatening and out-of-place. Or perhaps out-of-time. And although he tells them to stay out of his affairs, that seems easier said than done, since Ned feels a strong connection to the mysterious stranger. It begins to look as if an ancient story  - and an ancient enmity - is being played out, as it has been several times in the past, and Ned and Kate are caught up in it, as, unwittingly, are other members of his father's team. Before long, someone disappears and will be lost forever, unless the others can find them.

The first century BC history is handled with a gentle touch, enough detail to keep the story flowing but not to overload the reader. There's humour in the writing, as well as perceptiveness about relationships between teenagers and their families. The plot may remind some of The Owl Service, with its perhaps endless playing out of myth, but the feel is very different - Kay has none of Garner's grit. It's also lighter than Kay's own earlier work, and although a character from the Fionavar Tapestry makes an appearance, so that we know we are in a myth-cycle linked to that earlier trilogy, this is a standalone work.

I waited for months for the library to find a copy - it was only when I queried directly that they admitted it might have been lost, and ordered a new one that it finally turned up. Was it worth the wait? On balance, I think yes. I am counting Ysabel towards the Fourth Canadian Book Challenge and RIPV.


  1. I have owned this book since it came out and STILL haven't read it! One of these days...

  2. I'm slowly working my way through all Guy Gavriel Kay books. Haven't read this one yet. So far I've read "Sailing to Sarantium" and "Lord of Emperors." I loved them both. They are very much character and idea based rather than plot based. I look forward to reading them again someday! I've got "Tigana" and "The Lions of al-Rassan" waiting on the TBR pile. Glad to hear Ysabel was enjoyable.

  3. When I was in my late teens, I loved fantasy books, but came off it in the manner tastes change over the years. But this one sounds like I would enjoy it, so thank you for the description. I'll check my town's online catalogue for it.

  4. Kailana, I think you might enjoy it!

    Terri B, I've read Sailing to Sarantium but not the others, I think. The Fionavar series is good, though.

    Librarian, glad you are making use of good use of your library :)

  5. I've just started this, had missed it somehow when it first came out, so thank you for bringing it to my attention.

    Luckily I didn't have to wait very long for my library reservation to be fulfilled.