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Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by: Rick Kleffel © 2007

Roc / Penguin Putnam
US First Edition Hardcover
ISBN 978-0-451-46129-2
422 Pages; $24.95
Publication Date: 02-06-2007
Date Reviewed: 02-19-07

Index: General Fiction  Fantasy  Horror

Time — not space — is the final frontier. As every day goes by, we realize more fully, more intensely that fewer days await us. The material aspects of this world unfailingly yield to time, and the limits of our lives seem increasingly important, ever more defined by what we have the time to do. Each moment is pegged to the past, pitched relentlessly into the future. Our decisions are cannot be undone, even though they may prove to be our undoing. Time drags us helplessly along.

Time hangs heavy over 'Ysabel' the new novel by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay is known for fantasy novels that weave around in time, whether they involve characters from our world thrust into a world based on Celtic myths or re-inventions of our history with a gleaning of the fantastic. This time around, he's set his novel in the current day, but invested in history in the past rising up through the present. With carefully conceived characters, detailed evocations of both the past and the present, and an intimate understanding of the connections between archetype, myth and pure storytelling, Kay creates a compelling novel of how history and love rise through time, of how they definite time and are themselves defined in time.

Ned Marriner is a Canadian teenager accompanying his father, a famous photographer on a trip to shoot the Saint Saveur Cathedral in Aix-en-Provence. Neither man nor boy is happy that Ned's mother is in Darfur, dodging bullets and mending wounds for Doctors Without Borders. While checking out the cathedral soon after they arrive, Ned meets Kate Wenger, a history geek whose knowledge rivals that of Ned's father's hyper-competent assistant, Melanie. But neither Ned nor Kate can guess who the man in the leather jacket is, the man they meet beneath the cathedral. He seems out of time, yet invested in this place. When he tells them that they have wandered into a very old story, readers will know that he speaks a literal truth.

Kay's newest work benefits first and foremost from beautiful prose. He knows how to evoke the time and place of Provence, and the time behind the place. He describes the light, the sights, and the people with a rich clarity. There's a delicate balance in the language here that makes the novel a delight to read. Most of Kay's characters are thoroughly modern and come from fairly urban settings. He keeps things clear and uncluttered in the best sense of transparent modernism, yet he knows both when and how to turn a phrase, how to time his lyrical language, how to weave it in and out of a tale of toe-tapping suspense. This is a novel that is joy to read and a page-turner in one seamlessly executed work.

The main character in the novel is Ned, a fifteen-year old boy. Kay hits all the grace notes of an adolescent point of view without succumbing to the temptation to write adolescent prose. Ned's surrounded by smart and interesting adults, so it’s no surprise that he's smart and interesting as well. Kay evokes the perfect pitch of enthusiasm, but tempers it with rich prose and a gorgeously evoked setting. Ned is accompanied his father, two assistants to his father Steve and Greg, and Melanie, the girl with the green streak in her hair and the almost obsessively organized personality. Credit Kay with knowing what to tell and how much to reveal to make bring every character to life. Kate Wenger, the girl Ned meets fares as well as Melanie. They’re both likable, but neither is perfect.

More interesting is Kay's choice to keep Ned's mother out of the action for much of the novel. Interesting by virtue of her absence, and even more interesting when she arrives, Meghan and her sister Kim have a complicated relationship that ties to the plotline of the novel. Kay handles the family dynamic with an ease that belies the skill that has clearly gone into its creation.

The broad plot outlines of Kay's novel are exceedingly skillfully executed. Beneath the cathedral, Ned and Kate have wandered into an eternal story, with characters who manage to present as both clever and compelling individuals as well as evocative archetypes. Their involvement in this story unearths the layers of history that make Aix-en-Provence such a gorgeous countryside, the violence as well as the majesty. Kay's story turns on a lynchpin of history that may be unfamiliar but is a startling discovery as revealed in the novel, turning point that helped create the world we know and suggests a world we cannot imagine. Yet the stakes are simple,and that simplicity evokes a visceral, caring reaction in the reader because Kay has devised his characters and plot with a precision that is nothing short of amazing.

'Ysabel' is a surprisingly brave book. It earns the reader's love the old fashioned way, by telling a compelling story with great characters who inhabit a world we know and worlds we must only imagine. History is every bit as remote as fantasy, and memories are or only interface with the past, with the bulk of time that stretches behind us. One must commend the publisher as well, for there must have been a temptation to market 'Ysabel' as a young adult novel. There are no show-stopping scenes that make it inappropriate for younger readers. But this is a novel that adults can love equally, a novel of the time we have behind us and the time we have before us. There is only so much we can do with our days our hours, and that realization informs every word of 'Ysabel'. The testament then, is that even with this thought, readers will realize that every word in 'Ysabel' is worth the moment it takes to read. Indeed, this is the sort of novel that one might well dread finishing. You can only read 'Ysabel' for the first time once. Savor those moments -- and all that follow.

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