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Ysabel

by Guy Gavriel Kay

With this new novel, Toronto writer Guy Gavriel Kay returns to a more mythic storytelling approach, following several books that embraced the historical over the fantastic. This is not, however, the epic fantasy of the Fionavar Tapestry. Rather, Ysabel brings a touch of otherworldliness to present-day France.

At various times during the past three millennia, the Provence region of France has been occupied by Greeks, Romans, and Celts – sometimes simultaneously, and often not peacefully. Kay has combined his own intimate knowledge of the area (he wrote much of the book while living there with his family) with in-depth historical research to paint a vivid picture of Provence’s at-times bloody history. Layered over this historical background is a modern-day tale replete with cellphones, iPods, and teenage angst, all centred in the city of Aix-en-Provence.

Fifteen-year-old Ned is staying with his father, a renowned photographer, who is working on a book. While exploring the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral, he meets Kate, an exchange student from New York, and together they encounter a mysterious man rising from a grate in the baptistry. Ned and Kate are swept into a mythic tale of war and love that has endured through the ages. In a nice divergence from most youth-focused quest fiction, Ned reaches out to his father and his father’s assistants, creating a larger, more diverse cast of characters.

Full of history and with vivid descriptions of Aix-en-Provence and the surrounding areas, Ysabel is almost as much a travelogue as it is a novel. Kay’s research is exhaustive and interesting in its own right. However, such a vast amount of physical and historical detail has the unfortunate effect of slowing the momentum of the book considerably in the first part. As the story progresses, however, Kay finds a better equilibrium, and the book becomes difficult to put down.

Dedicated readers of Kay’s earlier books may be surprised by the return of a couple of familiar characters, though Ysabel is very much Ned’s story. The combination of a contemporary coming-of-age tale juxtaposed with a centuries-old love triangle makes for a powerful, engrossing read, which will satisfy Kay’s many fans and newcomers alike.