Book Review: Ysabel by Kay (3.5 Stars)

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

3.5 out of 5 stars

Read in Nov/Dec 2013

Synopsis (excerpts from author’s website Bright Weavings):

Provence, in the south of France, is a part of the world that has been—and continues to be—called a paradise. But one of the lessons that history teaches is that paradise is coveted and fought over. Successive waves of invaders have claimed—or tried to claim—those vineyards, rivers, olive groves, and hills.

In Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel, Ysabel, this duality—of exquisite beauty and violent history—is explored in a work that marks a departure from Kay’s historical fantasies set in various analogues of the past.

Ysabel takes place in the world of today: in a modern springtime, in and around the celebrated city of Aix-en-Provence near Marseilles. Dangerous, mythic figures from the Celtic and Roman conflicts of the past erupt into the present, claiming and changing lives.

The protagonist is Ned Marriner, the fifteen year-old son of a well-known photographer. Ned has accompanied his father, Edward Marriner, and a team of assistants to Provence for a six week “shoot.”

My Thoughts:

What Kay writes, I love to read, even when the subgenre he explores doesn’t jive with what I usually enjoy reading.  However, Ysabel contained many historical elements I love to explore.  I’m like a moth to a flame when you mentioned Celtic and Roman cultures clashing.  Not so much with young adults thrown into the mix, though.  I left my adolescence behind decades ago, and my offspring are traversing the latter half of their second decade, so I rarely want to revisit all that angst and unrestrained immaturity and general lack of common sense.

I’d picked up the hardcover edition somewhere in the last year or two, before I stopped buying print editions and began converting my existing collection of hundreds of books (over five year’s worth of reading the last time I calculated my physical shelves) to ebooks.  One of my online book clubs selected Ysabel as the book of the month for November 2013, so I resolved to read it despite my misgivings.  To peruse the non-spoiler and spoiler discussion threads, follow this link to the Beyond Reality group at GoodReads.

I started reading Ysabel before Thanksgiving, but had to take a week to ten days off from reading while I visited my aforementioned offspring in North Texas.  Once I returned to a more normal daily routine, I finished the novel in about a week.

I liked the story and the exploration of Celtic and Roman conquests in France, albeit more as tourist attractions than infodumps (for which I’m grateful). I wanted much more story and involvement from Ned’s aunt and uncle. That alone will cause me to return to the Fionavar Tapestry (I read the first book, The Summer Tree, for the SF&F book club at GoodReads in June 2011), as those two characters (Ned’s aunt and uncle) appear in that series.

I think the urban fantasy elements would have worked better for me had the protagonist not been a male adolescent.  Kay is a master of weaving history with subtle strands of fantasy.  But the true master of urban fantasy, for me, will always be Charles de Lint (try Moonheart, I highly recommend it).

I’m glad I finished Ysabel, and I do consider it well written, absorbing and intriguing.  Guy Gavriel Kay just set the bar so high with Tigana and The Lions of Al Rassan though that Ysabel just seems a bit of a disappointment.

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