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Tillabooks: Will's Book Blog

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay

Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay. New York: Roc, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-451-46129-2

Here we have a superior entry in that most difficult of genres to pull off, the modern life fantasy. I have to call it fantasy, because of the supernatural nature of the storyline. Ned, our primary protagonist, is the 15-year-old son of a famous American photographer, who is with his dad and several assistants in Provence, France, shooting pictures for a book.

While visiting the local cathedral, Ned meets a girl his own age, another American, from a student exchange program. And the two of them run into a very strange man, exhibiting some rather strange behavior, and right there in the cathedral, Ned has a kind of epiphany. Suddenly he seems to know things instinctively, things that don't make a lot of sense on the surface. Things that relate to the strange fellow they run into.

It seems that there are two men, thousands of years old, who have to keep coming back, kind of like the Wandering Jew of legend, over and over again, competing to win the affection of a woman. Only the woman returns by means of inhabiting the body of someone contemporary, whoever happens to be available in the right place at the right time. The time being Beltaine, the old Gaelic holiday celebrated around the beginning of May, and the place being Oppidum d'Entrement, an ancient ruin, a Celtic settlement from the pre-Roman era.

That's the story in a nutshell. Ned, the girl he meets, his father, their companions, and others, all get caught up in the ancient story, as it is relived one last time. Guy Gavriel Kay is obviously a master of his craft, and the story is completely engrossing, one of those page turners that grabs you from the beginning and won't let you go until you finish it. The age of the main characters, teenagers, and the coming of age aspects to the story, will likely make this book attractive to teens as well as adults.

My only quibble relates to the reason it's so hard to write fantasy in modern settings, like this. When Ned has to try and explain what's going on to his father and the rest of the group, they naturally don't believe it, not at first, anyway. Would you? I wouldn't. This is the part of the story that is the least successful. It's the kind of moment when (if it were a movie), you want to just shut your eyes until it's over. There's no way around it; this kind of supernatural stuff just doesn't mix with reality. We know it's not real, and to persuade the real people in the story (read, modern, contemporary people much like you or me) that it IS real, is just not going to be very believable, no matter how well it's written.

Still, put those two or three episodes aside, and the rest of the story makes for a real barn burner. Highly recommended.

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