Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's YSABEL

Guy Gavriel Kay's trilogy, the Fionavar Tapestry, ended very satisfyingly and completely, wrapping up pretty much for good that realm's big story. But I'd heard there was a sequel of sorts anyway and my skeptical eyebrow shot up. Stupid eyebrow.

Ysabel is and isn't that sequel; its being a sequel only in that we get to see what became of the two Toronto characters who were the only ones of the Five that chose to return to our world after the Tapestry trilogy's events concluded. They're not super important to the plot of Ysabel, so I'm not going to name them and just avoid any chance of spoilers; I'll just say it was nice to see them again and get a bit more of what their lives had been like before and were like after those other books took place.

Ysabel takes place entirely in our own world, in the actual south of France that inspired Kay's other creation that I've loved, Arbonne, but very much in the 21st century. Which is to say that, yes, Ysabel is kind of Kay's foray into "urban fantasy" except it takes place mostly in the gorgeous French countryside and its many fine examples of Celtic and Greco-Roman ruins and holy sites. And yes, the gorgeous comes through in this book; this is Guy Gavriel Kay.

The story concerns a Canadian teenager, Ned, who is spending the spring in Provence while his world-famous photographer father and his retinue work on gathering images for the next great coffee table book. Left to his own devices, he has the amusing (but even he admits to himself not terribly original) idea to listen to Led Zeppelin's Houses of the Holy while exploring an actual French cathedral. Before you can say "Over the Hills and Far Away" though, Ned has met two people who are going to completely mess up his plans: a cute and geeky teenage girl from New York named Kate (hooray!) and a weird sinister stranger who says weird sinister things and leaves both of the kids way more curious than he meant to -- or than is good for them.

And thus our teens get dragged into the re-enactment of the city of Marseilles' founding myth. And I'm not talking about a LARP. It's almost Beltane, see, and every once in a while the old unquiet spirits of the region take advantage of the power such nights kick up to come back and have another go at each other. Two such are bitter lives-long enemies from the original clash of Celtic and Greek cultures that kicked off a great deal of European civilization; another such is the woman they both love, who loves them both, and over whom they fought centuries ago. All very well and good, and who wouldn't want to meet such legendary people, even if they're a bit dangerous.

Ah but there's a catch. The men can just drag themselves back by their mythical/spiritual bootstraps, but because of REASONS the woman has to possess a living woman. And a living woman, the young and spritely and very well organized Melanie, is the brains behind Ned's dad's traveling photographic circus. Oops.

The rest of the story proceeds more or less as one might expect, a bit of a disappointment after all of the surprises and turns I've come to expect from Kay after visiting Arbonne and Fionavar. I'm not sure if Ysabel was intended as young adult fiction (but no parent should be troubled to let his or her young adult read this, and hey, the kids are at the center of the story at all times), but perhaps it was and Kay pulled some punches? At any rate, it's still a good book, better than a lot of the fantasy that's out there, and still elegantly written and emotionally powerful. It's just less so. But that's all right.

I'm excited to try his sort-of-Byzantine and sort-of-Spain and sort-of-China books in the near future. Especially the former. I loves me some Byzantium.

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