by Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by Steven H Silver
The majority of Guy Gavriel Kayís recent novels have been historical fantasies, set in worlds similar to our own, but where magic works. However, Kayís first major solo work, the Fionovar Tapesty blended the modern world with fantasy as he sent five Canadian students to a world in which magic works. Kayís new novel, Ysabel, is also a blend of the modern and fantastic.
Ned Marriner is a high school student from Toronto, traveling in Provence with his father, the world famous photographer Edward Marriner, to prepare a coffee table book. When Ned enters the cathedral in Aix-en-Provence and first meets the American student Kate Wenger and then a mysterious man, he is slowly drawn into a world which is much more than it seems.
His encounter with the mystery man leads Ned to realize that he has a strange, previously unknown mental powers. Without a mentor, however, Ned is unable to fully make use of the powers, or even begin to understand him. Additional meetings with the mystery man only serve to heighten Nedís awareness and convince him that the man is not his mentor.
The story really takes off when Kate drags Ned to Entremont on the eve of Beltaine, despite Ned specifically not wanting to be there on the holy day. They witness an ancient ritual revolving around two men, Phelan, Nedís mystery man, and Cadell. Into this ritual, the mysterious Ysabel suddenly appears, an archetype as much as either of the men, and she sets them a task: Whichever one can find her before three days are up will win her. Despite his desire to stay as far from these men and their conflict as possible Ned, Kate, and the rest of Ned's father's team find themselves drawn inexorably into the contest.
While Kayís story focused on Ned up to this point, once his quest has been outlined, Kay is happy to give larger roles to his supporting cast, not just Nedís father and his assistants, but with appearances by Nedís estranged aunt and uncle, and his mother. As the deadline approaches, and run-ins with Phelan and Cadell increase and become more dangerous, Kay builds a heightened sense of peril and desperation. Those who know indicate that even if Ned can find Ysabel, he won't be able to stop the forces which bind her to the two men.
Kayís characters, even Ned's antagonists Phelan and Cadell, are mostly likable. The setting they move through, Provence, in which Kay has spent quite a bit of time, comes across as detailed and magical as his own worlds of Fionavar, Sarantium, or Arbonne, made even more real by the underlying knowledge that the historical events Kayís characters describe actually occurred and the places can be visited.
At the same time, the realism of Kayís Provence works against the magical overlay. The battle between the Celts (as represented by Cadell) and the Romans (represented by Phelan) doesn't appear to have a direct analog to Ned's world, and even as a new addition to the triangle created by Phelan, Cadell, and Ysabel, he doesn't fit in. Instead, Ned and the modern world is an attempt to disrupt the primal conflict they represent, although Ned's success in that disruption remains unclear at the end of the tale.
A break from the last several novels Kay has published, Ysabel demonstrates that Kay is able to break away from the template which has framed so many of his works. His portrayal of a modern period is well done and his characters fit into the world well. If the magic doesn't quite coalesce, it isn't as much of a problem as might be feared an Ysabel still works as a novel and as a look at the clash of cultures.
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