Ned Marriner is in the south of France with his famous photographer father, who’s taking pictures for a new book. Also along for the ride is Edward Marriner’s ultra-competent assistant, Melanie, and Greg and Steve, who also help out by driving the equipment van, loading and unloading of equipment, and other tasks. The first day in Aix, Ned’s keeping out of the way inside the cathedral when he meets Kate Wenger, an exchange student from New York about his age, and the two of them encounter, firstly a carving of a woman who Ned instinctively knows isn’t the Queen of Sheba, and then a lean, bald man in a grey leather jacket who is subtly threatening.
Before long, Ned and Kate – and then the rest of the Canadian crew – are dragged into the reiteration of a very old story: a love triangle in which two men endlessly replay the same drama of fighting for the same woman, though who wins her is not always the same. Two characters from Kay’s earlier Fionavar Tapestry books appear, and their presence, as well as his father’s and the others, helps Ned to face down the very real dangers that exist in his meddling with the story, and to help him come to terms with this crashing in of the past and a possibly supernatural ability into the real world.
Kay uses the locations of Provence and its history beautifully in telling the story. Ned’s a realistic character, and his shy and uncertain interactions with Kate are nicely done; likewise, Kate’s a nice girl, intelligent and bookish, and more knowledgeable than Ned. The actors in the love triangle are interesting, too, though I had more sympathy for Phelan than for Cadell – maybe because he’s the one presented first in the narrative, and whose point of view Kay more clearly articulates than Cadell’s. He also seems a bit more complex, certainly, and more tired of the endless rivalry through the centuries which has never reached an end or definitive conclusion. Ysabel herself is a bit more of a cipher, understandably. There are glimpses of Celtic mythology, in particular, with the presence of a druid, wolves, and a gigantic boar, but the history of Provence, and its varied conquerors and occupiers – and the conflict between the Roman and the Celtic cultures there – form the basis of the book.
While it’s not as sweeping or epic in scope as most of his other novels, Ysabel is well-written and evocative, both of landscape and history. There’s a very jarring bit at the end, where I think Kay forgets exactly how old each of the characters is, but otherwise the characterisation is well done and Ned remains realistically centre-stage of the action. The bits specifically involving photography, and the techniques thereof, seem realistic and I found them interesting, even if they don’t advance the plot significantly (aside from Ned’s first visit to Mont Saint-Victoire). The appearance of two characters from Kay’s previous novels doesn’t over-balance the narrative, though obviously it does give more resonance if you’ve already read about their previous history and thus know why they’re so confident (or can act that way) in their confrontations with Cadell and Phelan. Most of the characters are visitors to Provence, and there are very few interactions with locals, apart from the two women who cook and clean at the villa where the Marriners are staying, and a security guard at one of the sites visited in the search for Ysabel. It may be that this is realistic – visitors do tend to keep to themselves when abroad – but it does give less depth to the narrative.
A bit of a departure for Kay, but an entertaining ‘fantasy in the real world’ kind of novel, nevertheless, with realistic and sympathetic characters and a believable teenage hero.
Published by: HarperCollins (2007)
I purchased this as an e-book.
This is a more positive review than I was expecting! Whenever I ask people about Guy Gavriel Kay, they seem to always say “Oh yeah, and there’s Ysabel, but don’t read that one.” I have this notion of it in my head as something quite quite dull and subpar. But perhaps not! Your description of it makes it sound really good.
Ha, yes! I think it’s because it’s set in the present day and thus doesn’t have the same epic scope and historical sweep as his other novels, which might be a bit of a come-down if that’s what you were expecting. Someone commented that maybe Kay had too good a time roaming round Provence doing his research for this book, and I can see why one might think that, but it was in a good cause!