Guy Gavriel Kay’s Ysabel

cover art for YsabelThere is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into.

Robert Graves

As in Jane Yolen’s The Wild Hunt, in Ysabel we have a Summer Queen, similar to but not the same as Yolen’s Summer Queen. And both works have what can loosely be considered Champions vying over and over again for her hand. (Or perhaps just her honor, as the case might be.) And like Yolen’s novel, the game played here, which has gone on for a very, very long time, has very serious consequences. And like the Yolen novel, Ysabel has at its heart two teenage protagonists. But despite the similarities, Ysabel is very different from The Wild Hunt, the primary difference being that Yolen’s work was really a novella, but this work is a full-blown novel exploring in depth what happens when mortals touched by magic get caught up in a somewhat nasty game being wagered for extremely high stakes. For as always is the case when The White Goddess is involved, no one dares guess the outcome of the game. (Yolen’s work also opens with a stanza from the Robert Graves poem ‘To Juan at The Winter Solstice’, quoted above. Given the subject matter, it’s not all that strange a coincidence!) The only question that matters is what game is being played and how to avoid getting seriously hurt by what unfolds.

The bound galley from Viking Canada that I was sent by the publicist was something I had not expected to like all that much, as Guy Gavriel Kay has not been a writer whose work I’ve developed a great liking for over the years. I was re-reading Charles de Lint’s Forests of The Heart but I set it aside to see if the Kay was worth reading. The premise of the novel as noted on Kay’s Web site had made me request this galley many, many months before. So long ago in fact that I had forgotten my interest in reading it. You can be amused — as I get older, my memory certainly isn’t as good as it was some decades back. And oddly enough, memory plays an important role in this novel, as remembrance of what has been is what shapes this tale. Like Peter S. Beagle’s Summerlong novel which should see publication in 2008 if all goes well, Ysabel is very much about what happens when mortals and immortals meet.

The protagonist is Canadian Ned Marriner, the fifteen-year-old son of a well known photographer and a mother who’s rarely if ever with them. Ned has accompanied his father, Edward Marriner, and a team of assistants to Provence for a six week shoot of the legendary, history infused landscape. Ned plans nothing more than a little sightseeing, listening to his iPod, and catching up on essays he should have already written for school long ago. Melanie, his father’s somewhat anal-retentive but rather cute assistant, has prepared copious notes for him to all the local things he needs — coffee shops, wireless hotspots, cathedrals, you name it. (This trait of hers figures heavily in the plot.) While exploring a cathedral in Aix-en-Provence, the city where they are staying, Ned encounters Kate Wenger, a fifteen-year-old girl who he’s attracted to, artwork that gives him the creeps, and one of, oh, I’m not telling as that would spoil the fun. Let’s just say that his vacation will rapidly cease to be much fun at all.

What’s appealing about Ysabel is how believable all the characters are. Again like Summerlong, which has a different but similar plot, both humans and the not so human feel real, feel like folks one might encounter somewhere. Yolen’s Winter Queen is made real by existing sometimes as a rather imperious feline who was better than any other being, and Ysabel’s made believable by being less than certain about what she should do when faced with circumstances beyond what has gone before. Kay has a deft touch at both dialog and plotting — many a contemporary fantasy – Charles de Lint’s The Onion Girl and Jane Lindskold’s completion of Roger Zelazny’s Lord Demon – has failed for me because the characters didn’t act right; they simply accepted what was going as being ‘natural’. Here as in Summerlong they panic, they argue, and even get pissed off at each other over what is happening! I wasn’t at all sure things would work out well, but they did.

If for no other reason, read Ysabel to see how one can accurately depict fifteen-year-old characters. Most Young Adult fiction that I have read simply treats the young adults as miniature adults, not as beings who are both child and adult, but really neither. Kay’s much better than that with Ned Marriner — he is a fifteen-year-old interested in running, music, and girls. (His awareness of the fifteen-year-old female in the novel as being sexually arousing is both tastefully presented and important to the plot. And he will also have longings for Melanie which figure into the resolution of the plot!) Likewise his handling of the situation as it unfolds, in a manner William Butler Yeats would recognize, feels right.

How good is it? Let’s just say it’ll definitely make my Best of 2007 list a year from now. It’s that good. I look forward to re-reading Ysabel in its hardcopy edition when the publisher sends it to Green Man. (Yes, I re-read novels. After finishing this superb work, I went back to Forests of The Heart, and I will read Summerlong again when it comes out.) Though I don’t know that Kay plans a sequel, encountering this group of characters again would be a pleasure!

(Roc, 2007)

Cat Eldridge

I'm the publisher of Green Man Review. I do the Birthdays and Media Anniversary write-ups for Mike Glyer’s, the foremost SFF fandom site. My current audiobooks are Simon R. Green’s Jekyll & Hyde Inc., Robert J. Sawyer’s Red Planet Blues and Fritz Leiber’s The Big Time. I just read Kathryn Kristine Rusch’s Ten Little Fen which was most superb. My music listening as always leans heavily towards trad Celtic and Nordic music. I’m watching my way though all twenty one seasons of the British forensic series Silent Witness. Yes, twenty one seasons. And I keep adding plants to my flat here, up to nearly thirty now including a miniature banana tree which is growing nice and my first pineapple bromeliad.

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