“Ysabel” by Guy Gavriel Kay (Roc, 2007)


Ysabel is a different kind of novel for Guy Gavriel Kay, because instead of being about a specific historical period and culture like some of his past novels: Song for Arbonne, The Last Light of the Sun, and The Sarantine Mosaic two-book series; Ysabel is set in the present day, a feat Kay has never attempted before, and while I don’t believe this book is in his top three best novels, it nevertheless possesses much of the charm, character, and creative skill that Kay brings to all his books.

Ned Marriner is a fifteen year-old boy with raging hormones, hanging out with his father who is a world-renowned photographer working on a new coffee table book in the south of France.  Ned is used to this situation, hanging out with his father and his father’s assistants: Greg, Steve, and the overly organized Melanie, who he kind of has a crush on.  Ned’s mother, a member of Doctors Without Borders, is currently helping the sick in Sudan; each day Ned and his father, Edward, spend their spare time worrying about the safety of their mother.

The first fifty pages of the book run kind of slow, as we get to know the characters in this very ordinary setting for Kay with talk of Google, Ipods, and cellphones; but it is well balanced with the amazing and ancient architecture of the cathedrals and other beautiful locations Edward is photographing in Provence.  Kay, like all good authors who really go out of their way with the research, spent time in Provence and the south of France, getting to know the people and the places, and the feel, resulting in an honest narrative that makes the reader imagine they’re really there.  It is at the cathedral that he meets the nerdy Kate, a girl of equal age from New York and they immediately hit it off as friends, with perhaps something more to come.  It is here also that Ned has his first weird and “psychic” feeling of someone close by, watching, whereupon they discover a man with a knife waiting to attack them, but they manage to escape.

These feelings that Ned has continue to get stronger and stronger, to the point where he has an extreme migraine and discovers it is because he is standing at the location where a great battle was fought over two thousand years ago.  He feels the pain and suffering of all those who died with this new ability that he cannot control.  As the story grows it becomes evident that he is involved in an ancient Celtic love triangle that is continuously getting replayed throughout history.  The Celtic woman in question is Ysabel.  On the eve of Beltaine the ritual begins, as the Celtic ghosts appear from thin air in their all too familiar roles.  Ned and Kate find themselves drawn in, to the point where Kate is almost selected as a “host body” for Ysabel, but then Melanie arrives at the last second and is chosen.  Ysabel – transformed from Melanie — gives her two ancient Celtic suitors three days to find her, with the one who finds her first becoming her true love, and the other being sacrificed.  It then becomes a chasing game, as Ned and his friends and family – with the arrival of a long lost yet powerful aunt and uncle – must find Ysabel/Melanie before it is too late.

While this is a classic Kay novel with the characterization, pacing, and action, along with a familiar magical element; the overall plot leaves the reader wondering what was the whole point: a Celtic love triangle that repeats itself?  Coupled with modern day scenery as opposed to the familiar historical world we are so used to with Kay, Ysabel is an okay novel, but I hope Kay gets back to his regular historical fantasy with his next book.

If you liked this review and are interested in purchasing this book, click here.

Originally written on June 1st 2007 ©Alex C. Telander.

For an interview with Guy Gavriel Kay check out BookBanter Episode 23.