Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay, was the first novel by the author I have read. I was fortunate enough to win a copy from Pat’s Fantasy Hotlist, which has a lot of book giveaway contests. This will definitely not be the last of Kay’s novels I read; I almost picked up Tigana the other day but opted to buy a copy of Patrick Rothfuss’s debut novel The Name of the Wind without the Fabio cover instead while I had the chance.
Ysabel is supposed to have ties to Kay’s earlier work, The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. Apparently, a lot of events the character’s mention without really filling in the details of what happened occurred in these books. I’m sure it helps to have read The Fionavar Tapestry before reading Ysabel, but I don’t think it’s necessary to read them first. I didn’t feel lost reading the book because of not having read The Fionavar Tapestry, although I was curious about the parts of the backstory that were referred to without being explained.
From what I understand, the writing style of Ysabel is very different from Kay’s other work. It was not what I had expected after reading about his beautiful prose. Ysabel is very simply written and reads like a young adult novel, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing – it fits since the main character is a 15 year old boy, and although it is not written in first person, the only character’s thoughts who are revealed to us are his thoughts.
This is also different in that it is contemporary fantasy, meaning it takes place in the present (and that was entirely in the present – it wasn’t one of those books where somebody from the modern world gets taken to some sort of fantasy world). I haven’t read much contemporary fantasy, so I found it kind of amusing to read references to Starbucks and google and iPods in a fantasy book.
I don’t want to give away too much of the plot of this book since it was one of those books where you didn’t want to put down the book because you wanted to find out what happens next and I don’t want to take that fun away from anybody. So I’ll just say a little about the beginning of the story.
Fifteen year old Ned Marriner is on a trip to Aix-en-Provence in France with his father, a well-known photographer working in the area. Ned explores the Saint-Saveur Cathedral while they are there for a photo shoot, and meets a geeky American exchange student around his age named Kate who knows a lot about the history of the area. While they are in the cathedral, a man comes up through the grate saying that “he” wasn’t there and that “he” enjoyed playing games. Ned and Kate think the man has left, but Ned finds he can sense the man’s presence and tells him to come out. The mysterious man does come out and informs them that they have “blundered into the corner of a very old story” and that they should leave it alone. Of course, they just become further entangled in the events of the story and the competition between a Roman and a Celt.
The characters are all unique and interesting, but I wouldn’t consider it a character-driven book. You don’t really get into any of the character’s heads other than Ned’s and it’s not one of those books where I was sad about leaving the characters behind or felt like there was really deep characterization. It was a page-turner, though, and wanting to find out what happens kept me reading. I also liked the little tidbits about the history of the area, and the details about the area were probably pretty exact since Kay actually wrote the book while staying near Aix-en-Provence.
I’d give it 8/10, and I would definitely read it again sometime.