For my first plunge back into fiction after Lent, I could not do better than read the newest book by my favourite fantasy author. I was first introduced to Guy Gavriel Kay through reading his Fionavar trilogy back in the 80s — classic high fantasy with characters from our world drawn into an epic conflict in a fairy-tale world where the archetypes of all our myths and legends live and breathe.
His later novels took a different direction, which I liked even better — vividly drawn fantasy worlds based on places and periods in our own world’s history, but with fantasy “twists” thrown in. My favourites of these later novels include Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan, but they’re all great.
Ysabel takes Kay down a completely different path. First, though I haven’t seen it marketed as a young adult novel, it certainly seems more geared to that readership than his previous novels which were clearly “adult.” The teenage protagonist, the lack of spicy sex scenes common in Kay’s other novels, and the single main plot rather than the usual complex tapestry of interwoven subplots, all suggest that this book could more easily be enjoyed by teen readers than most of Kay’s other work. That doesn’t mean it’s not enjoyable for an adult reader, although I missed some of the complexity and surprises that I’ve come to rely on in GGK’s writing.
Another difference is that Ysabel takes place entirely in our world — twenty-first century Provence, to be specific. The “fantasy” element comes in when characters from the past — two men and a woman locked in an eternal love triangle that they are fated to repeat in different incarnations throughout the ages — meet up with Ned, the fifteen-year-old Canadian boy who is visiting France with his photographer father.The plot is a page-turner and the characters are enjoyable, although, as I said, I missed the complexity and depth of some of Kay’s earlier work. He has used the device of the lovers eternally doomed to play out their love triangle throughout history — before, with Arthur, Lancelot and Guinevere in Fionavar. The problem here is that he doesn’t (in my opinion) do an adequate job of convincing the reader that these three lovers are important and their problems siginificant. They matter to Ned and his family and friends only because one member of Ned’s father’s staff has unfortunately gotten entangled in the triangle — without that complication, there’d be no larger significance for the world. Should all fantasy novels involve world-threatening outcomes? Perhaps not.
So Ysabel is enjoyable, but a little flat in places — however, it has one asset that outweighs any shortcomings the book might have. Like many readers who enjoyed The Fionavar Tapestry, I was tormented at the end by wondering what happened after two of the five human characters returned to their own world. How did they get on with their lives after what they’d seen and done? How did they explain the absence of the three people who didn’t return?
Ysabel doesn’t exactly answer all those questions, but as Kay’s first novel set back in our world, it does pick up some of the character threads that were dropped twenty-five years earlier at the end of Fionavar, and that alone made it worth reading for me.
It’s always worthwhile for authors to try new things, and I can see why writers don’t want to get stuck in a rut of always writing the same old thing, but I would like to see Kay go back to books like The Sarantine Mosaic, Tigana, or The Lions of Al-Rassan. A sequel to The Last Light of the Sun, maybe?