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Ysabel    by Guy Gavriel Kay order for
by Guy Gavriel Kay
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Viking, 2007 (2007)

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* * *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

Ysabel is a departure from Guy Gavriel Kay's recent style of fantasy. Previous books - from Tigana and A Song for Arbonne to his Sarantine Mosaic duo - explored alternate historical realities, capturing the essence of a particular period in our own history while changing the details. Instead, Ysabel looks at the intersection of magic with the modern world.

The story's protagonist is fifteen year-old Ned Marriner, son of celebrated photographer Edward Marriner and his physician wife Meghan, whose work with Doctors Without Borders takes her to dangerous parts of the world. Now she's in the wartorn Sudan, and both husband and son are anxious (also angry in Ned's case) about her safety. The book's setting is Provence, steeped in history, where Kay tells us, 'the beginning of a day in Provence was a gift, celebrated in words and art for two thousand years and more.' Edward Marriner has brought Ned and his three assistants - Greg, Steve and tiny, super-organized Melanie - to this 'serene and savage corner' of France for six weeks, to shoot photographs for a new book.

Killing time in the dim, high-vaulted Saint-Sauveur Cathedral of Aix-en-Provence while his dad's team makes preparations outside, Ned encounters first tall, thin, freckled Kate Wenger, and then, coming out from under a grate in the baptistry, a small, scarred, knife-wielding man, who threatens them and speaks obscurely - 'The world will end before I ever find him in time.' The encounter arouses both Ned's courage and his curiosity and he investigates, with Kate's support. After she shows him a worn carving of what's supposedly the Queen of Sheba, Ned begins to realize that he knows things, and his world changes. He finds that he's fallen into the middle of an ancient, perilous story, one whose ending is still untold.

There are further encounters with both the small man and his shapechanging adversary, and Ned discovers he has a nauseating sensitivity to historical scenes of violence. The banter between Ned, Kate and the photography team is engaging and real, and Ned and Melanie form a strong connection. Then Ned meets his white-haired aunt Kim, long estranged from her younger sister in the aftereffects of her own magical adventures. She tells him something about his inheritance and new awareness, and offers her support. And, though Ned intends to keep his head down, a changed Kate persuades him to visit the ruins of Entremont on Beltaine eve. There, one of their party is taken over by the ancient story that the small man, the shapechanger, and Ysabel have played out again and again through time.

It's an old tale involving a love triangle, Celts and Roman, love and hatred, violence and sacrifice, echoing down through millennia. Ysabel sets a task for her two lovers to complete in three days, and disappears. Can Ned, his family and friends, find her in time to break the cycle and rescue the innocent inadvertently pulled into this powerful, magical story? In Ysabel, Ned comes of age abruptly, finds that he has surprising powers of his own, and learns that 'The past doesn't lie quietly.' Though I admit to a preference for Kay's historical fantasies, I found Ysabel thoroughly absorbing and look forward to whatever this brilliant author writes next.

2nd Review by Tim Davis:

I have a confession. I was not particularly eager to read Guy Gavriel Kay's latest novel, Ysabel. Here was my reasoning: Fantasy and SF writers have, in my view, too frequently in the recent past (in the past ten to twenty years) veered unacceptably away from their orthodox (and literary quality) heritage. (Kay, incidentally, had not been included in my resistant bias on this issue because I had not read anything that he had written.) At any rate, as a result, I have not too often been tempted once again to see whether or not a fantasy or SF writer measures up to my admittedly old-fashioned preferences. Now, however, I wisely overcame my resistance and yielded to temptation by giving Ysabel a chance.

Here is my verdict: Ysabel, Kay's tenth novel, is quite clearly one of the finest fantasy novels of the past several decades. When the action begins, fifteen year old Canadian Ned Marriner is in Aix-en-Provence with his photographer father. When Ned wanders off on his own to explore the interior of the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral - while his father sets up the exterior shots for his much anticipated forthcoming coffee-table book - Ned makes a startling discovery. A strange man with a bald head and a nasty scar on his face mysteriously appears, as if out of nowhere, and issues a frightening warning: 'Go away. I have killed children before. I have no desire to do so now ... I think you ought to go now. You have blundered into a corner of a very old story. It is no place for children. Believe me.' Then the man suddenly seems to disappear.

Most fifteen year olds would be so intimidated that they would heed the ominous man's fearsome warnings. Ned, however, is not the typical adolescent. Curious, intelligent, and resourceful - and soon to discover that he has special cognitive abilities that will give him unique access to long hidden secrets - Ned, with his newly acquired acquaintance Kate Wenger, begins a fascinating and frightening adventure. Soon Ned and Kate are encountering the threatening man once again. And then Ned, with the surprising assistance of someone in his own family, discovers that he - in order to learn more about himself, and because of his special abilities - must confront embattled figures from Provence's violent past.

As the action and the tension builds, Ned finds himself drawn into a challenging quest through which he - and a spell-binding assortment of ancient and not-so-ancient characters with remarkable powers - must face the complicated mysteries of love and redemption in the midst of ancient violence and terror.

Written with a beautiful lyrical intensity and clarity that defies description - and must simply be experienced - Ysabel is engrossing, provocative, and commendable. The finely crafted characterizations and the life-like dialogue are enriched by humor and innocence, and the compelling plot moves along briskly. So, escape to Provence - and explore its past - and enjoy this sparkling blend of a contemporary coming-of-age tale and historical fantasy.

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