Guy Gavriel Kay, you know him. He’s that guy taking real-world, historical backdrops and infusing them with subtle yet epic fantasy storylines. Tigana, The Lions of Al-Rassan, River of Stars, these and other novels, while likely less known on the market in 2021, nevertheless successfully deliver operatic storylines with a heavy dose of sentimentality in timeless fashion. What then could Kay do in his one and only novel in a modern setting, Ysabel (2007)?
Loosely young adult, Ysabel is the story of fifteen-year old Ned Marriner. Son of a famous photographer, the reader meets Ned onsite in Provence, France as his father shoots an old cathedral. Ned meeting an exchange student named Kate as he bums around waiting for his father to finish the shoot, the two have a bit of a run-in in the tunnels beneath the cathedral while looking at Celtic ruins. Nothing coming of the uncanny event, Ned nevertheless becomes gravely ill when he and his father’s team approach the next day’s location, the site of an ancient Roman battle. Ned’s sickness fading the further he moves from the location, things seem to return to normal. It’s a repeat meeting at a café, however, that pushes things over the top. The supernatural emerging from woodwork, Ned’s life is never the same. Question is, how long will that life be?
I write “loosely Young Adult” as Ysabel does exhibit elements of the medium but is not entirely juvenile. The dialogue between Ned and Kate, pop-culture bits, and the fact the story centers around a teenager who discovers special powers all warrant the tag. This being said, plotting, scene development, and the majority of the line-by-line delivery is not definitively for teen minds. Kay digs into Celtic and Druidic culture and myth, alongside the Roman and French influences that likewise evolved in the setting over time, and for this will engage adult minds beyondplotting. Never getting into lengthy exposition with historical details, Kay keeps this backdrop scattered across intentional, focused moments, moments that are balanced by drama and fantasy that will potentially keep minds of both ages engaged.
I will not go into the fantasy elements in this review as its best for the reader to go in cold and see it develop before their eyes. Suffice to say, the juxtaposition of Ned’s modern interaction with elements… less modern is the eye candy a lot of readers come to fantastika for. Some of these scenes surprising and others foreshadowed in more traditional fashion, they all possess an otherworldly aura with an edge of horror. The halfway point of Ysabel the climax of a lot of other novels, Kay continually evolves the narrative in a way that eventually threatens to sweep reality away. This juxtaposition where the novel loses most of its ability to keep the reader in a state of suspended disbelief, for those convinced and willing, it’s rich storytelling. But only until a point.
That point is the halfway mark. The second half of Ysabel grinds into a lower gear on its way to a sputtering climax. The intensity—which could have ramped up, instead ramps down. The engagement and interest which hold the reader throughout the first half become heavily character-based in the second. The number of onscreen characters too large, their interaction is not able to drive the plot, resulting in a dialogue-heavy affair that covers less ground. For readers invested in them, this may not pose a problem. For me, the latter half fizzled to a wet firecracker finish as everybody was doing their best to bring the new characters up to speed.
Since Ysabel’s publishing there has been a plethora of novels utilizing ancient cultures and beliefs to fictional, modern purpose. This is not to say that Ysabel started a trend (indeed, there are examples from throughout the past century), only that what we consider commonplace today was less so in 2007. But the fact Ysabel is not as unique in today’s market shouldn’t prevent the reader from inquiring further. Kay’s storytelling skills are adroit, and while he ordinarily becomes airy and occasionally purple in prose, in Ysabel he holds back, writing in straight-forward diction that does the modernity of the setting justice while potentially allowing more of the YA audience a chance to get on board, regardless of what is hot in YA on the market today. Will the entire novel entice, well, the first half at least…