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Ysabel
Guy Gavriel Kay
Viking Canada, 423 pages

Ysabel
Guy Gavriel Kay
Guy Gavriel Kay was born in Weyburn and raised in Winnipeg. In 1974-75, he assisted Christopher Tolkien with the editing of J.R.R. Tolkien's The Silmarillion. Guy Kay studied law at the University of Toronto and was admitted to the Bar in Ontario in 1981. He worked both as script consultant and principal writer for CBC Radio's award-winning series The Scales of Justice. He and his family live in Toronto.

Guy Gavriel Kay Website
ISFDB Bibliography
SF Site Review: The Last Light of the Sun
SF Site Review: The Last Light of the Sun
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay
SF Site Review: Beyond This Dark House: Poems
SF Site Review: Lord of Emperors
SF Site Review: Sailing to Sarantium
SF Site Review: The Lions of Al-Rassan
SF Site Interview: A Conversation With Guy Gavriel Kay

Past Feature Reviews
A review by Alma A. Hromic

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Reviewers are saying wonderful things about Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel -- and they are right. His writing, as always, is luminous -- in fact, the prologue to Ysabel is a poem told in prose, a love letter to Provence and its light and the depth of its past, only lightly covered by its present and by what we like to think of as "civilization"; this is a part of the world that Kay clearly knows, and loves, and this comes through clearly in the book. His handling of young adult characters is deft, often funny, often poignant. I've seen at least one review speaking of Ysabel as possibly Kay's iconic, defining, work.

But -- and there is a but -- I've been following Kay's career since the beginning, and to me Ysabel makes a conscious decision to return to that beginning. Which doesn't make me exactly happy because The Fionavar Trilogy, while clearly possessed of its inevitable soft spot in its author's heart as the thing that launched him as a writer of fantasy, is (as far as I am concerned) clearly not the best thing to which he has ever put his name.

Spoilers follow, so for those who don't really want to know, close your eyes now.

spoiler warning

The Fionavar Trilogy is overloaded with fantasy tropes -- everything from light and dark elves and dwarves and wizards, to dangerous but sexy priestesses of blood-demanding deities, to Dark Lords and Fallen Gods in their ruinous fortresses in the frozen north, to Good Kings and Swashbuckling Princes and Haughty Princesses with a Heart of Gold, to prophecies and gods that walk the earth and the dooms they put upon mortal men, all tied up by a handful of young people from our world who pop into Fionavar and find already pre-finished roles waiting for them -- Son of God, Seer, Warrior, Willing Sacrifice and Guinevere of Camelot. Two of the original five apparently survived their Fionavar experience and returned to this world -- only to, apparently, get married to one another and step into Ysabel.

I am not certain whether the book was conceived to receive The Fionavar Trilogy survivors or if the survivors stumbled into the book -- but either way they (to my mind) add absolutely nothing to it by their presence. It isn't as though either of them returns to show that they retain their powers -- even a smidge of them -- although lots of coy hints are given about the possibility thereof even while the characters in question maintaining sturdily to other characters in the book that no, they do NOT in fact possess any special powers, that they are not Seer and Warrior any more, they just play those characters on TV. But this is precisely the trap -- give them special powers and put them in the book, and they become a deus ex machina presence which can potentially shred the novel; make them "just human," and the question arises as to why on earth they are there in the first place..

Ysabel isn't -- precisely -- resolved. Or it is, maybe, depending on how you look at it -- but it isn't the kind of nice neat tying-up-the-loose-ends ending that might be expected in a YA book. It appears to have sorted out a nasty situation which has lasted for thousands of years by having the three participants in an eternal love triangle simply admit that they've all had enough and remove themselves from the world's stage, leaving behind what seems to be a love child (or a descendant of such a love child) whose role in the story seems to have been simply to turn up at the right time and (by his very presence) apparently bring legend and myth to a screeching halt.

There is more to the story than is told in this book, I think, and I find myself missing things that might have been omitted. With every book of his that I've read, I've seen Guy Gavriel Kay grow -- but this book is an odd regression in that cycle. The writing is pure Kay, and I'd read it for that alone, but the story is oddly disappointing, stretched too thin, consisting of a number of nicely sketched characters, a fading legend, and the light of Provence. I expected... more. I guess that might be the danger of writing something as transcendent as Tigana -- the bar has been set very high indeed, and while there are plenty of nice things that could be said about Ysabel, it can also be said that it has failed to clear that bar.

Copyright © 2007 Alma A. Hromic

Alma A. Hromic, addicted (in random order) to coffee, chocolate and books, has a constant and chronic problem of "too many books, not enough bookshelves." When not collecting more books and avidly reading them (with a cup of coffee at hand), she keeps busy writing her own. Her international success, The Secrets of Jin Shei, has been translated into ten languages worldwide, and its follow-up, Embers of Heaven, is coming out in 2006. She is also the author of the fantasy duology The Hidden Queen and Changer of Days, and is currently working on a new YA trilogy to be released in the winter of 2006.


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