Ysabel is the latest novel from Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay has been a nominee for the Best Novel prize at the World Fantasy Awards three times, but has not yet won. He has also been a nominee three times for Adult Literature at the Mythopoeic Awards, and was a nominee for both the William L. Crawford Award (for a first fantasy book) and for the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer (a field that also included Karen Joy Fowler and Tad Williams, but was won by Melissa Scott).
Ysabel is discussed by Cat Eldridge of Green Man Review, Gary K Wolfe of Locus Magazine, Karen Burnham of Spiral Galaxies, and Victoria Hoyle of Eve’s Alexandria. The discussion was moderated by Cheryl Morgan.
Notable reviews of Ysabel can be found online here:
- Green Man Review (Cat Eldridge)
- Spiral Galaxies (Karen Burnham)
- Strange Horizons (Graham Sleight and Victoria Hoyle)
- The Agony Column (Rick Kleffel)
- Excessive Candour at scifi.com (John Clute)
- BlogCritics (Richard Marcus)
- SF Site (Alma A Hromic)
OK, I’ll admit that I was not expecting to like Ysabel when the galley arrived from Viking Canada one evening last year. I had not read anything by Guy Gavriel Kay as his non-contemporary fantasy simply failed to catch my interest what-so-ever. But the press materials with it made it sound like it might be worth checking out, so I sat down and quickly immersed in the story. It was one of those fantasy novels like Jane Yolen’s The Wild Hunt and Emma Bull’s War for the Oaks which was far better than I expected to be. Why so? As I said in my review:
‘What’s appealing about Ysabel is how believable all the characters are. Again like Summerlong which has a different but similar plot, both humans and the not so human feel real, feel like folks one might encounter somewhere. Yolen’s Winter Queen’s made real by existing oft times as a rather imperious feline who was better than any other being, and Ysabel’s made believable by being less than certain about what she should do when faced with circumstances beyond what has gone before. Kay has a deft touch at both dialog and plotting — many a contemporary fantasy has failed for me , i.e., Charles de Lint’s The Onion Girl and Jane Lindskold’s completion of Roger Zelazny’s Lord Demon, because the characters didn’t act right in that they simply accepted what was going as being ‘natural’. Here as in Summerlong , they panic, they argue, and even get pissed off at each other over what is happening! I wasn’t at all sure things would work out well, but they did.’
I don’t like most YA fiction as the young adults in it feel anything but real, but here it was different. The characters such as Ned and his girlfriend to be are well sketched out, their actions within the framework of the story makes, and the adults don’t treat them as either children or as miniature adults. This is rather rare in YA fiction from what I’ve seen. Indeed it was good enough that I am now planning on The Fionavar Tapestry trilogy when winter comes — my way of saying I regret overlooking Kay because I made a snap judgment about his works.
BTW that galley ended up with Jane Yolen who also loved it!
Gary K Wolfe
As I said in reviewing Ysabel in my April Locus column, I was delighted by this novel, which works well as a YA novel with credible family relationships, as a fantasy procedural, and as an evocative love letter to Provence. As to what it contributes to contemporary fantasy, I think a key lies in the opening and closing epigraphs. As I said in my review, “Ysabel, which opens with a quotation from Robert Graves seeming to endorse his “only one story” White Goddess hypothesis (but cleverly undercuts it at the end with a quotation from the English writer and art critic John Berger on the multiplicity of story), is essentially a return-of-the-goddess tale, and it’s essentially a young-adult novel as well (although it’s not presented as such).”
So Kay is interested in exploring the nature of storytelling in this novel, and I think he does it in a way that is reasonably subtle and sophisticated (that’s the non-YA aspect of the novel). I was interested in reading Graham’s and Victoria’s dual Strange Horizons reviews, because I can see the validity of both points of view. The directness and efficiency of Kay’s storytelling can indeed look like slickness as much as virtuosity, and the goddess-tale itself, removed from the very specific setting and characters, might almost seem generic. But I don’t think you can do that kind of surgery without violating the terms of the novel. It may be the sort of fantasy novel that succeeds best in its non-fantasy aspects, but I tend to think that’s a choice rather than a failing on Kay’s part.
Ysabel is most notable in terms of style: the poetry of the language and the beauty of the landscape really dominate this tale. I had never had a burning desire to visit France until reading this book. The way Kay evokes the light and history of the landscape has really stayed with me since I first read it.
The other thing I like about the book is how it deals with intersecting stories. Ned is creating his own story (coming of age) while in danger of being dominated by the stories of others: the story of Ysabel and her competing lovers, the story of his father and mother, the story of his mother and his aunt, and the story of his aunt and uncle. Every character in the book (with the exception of the lamentably undistinguishable Greg and Mike) inhabits their own story, and Ned must struggle to create his own. It’s a strong message about how we create and inhabit our own lives, even if it does lead to the oddness of having a book titled Ysabel in which Ysabel’s story is only lightly sketched. Still, one thinks that a book titled Ned probably wouldn’t have sold quite as well.
I must admit that I found Guy Gavriel Kay’s tenth novel difficult to connect with in the beginning. First impressions suggested that it was a profoundly different type of book to those that had gone before it, a clear departure from the epic alternate-historical mode of his best (and my favourite) works, The Lions of Al-Rassan and The Sarantine Mosaic. It is set in the present day for a start, complete with modern patois and references to contemporary world events; and it takes an adolescent boy, Ned Marriner, for its protagonist, favouring his personal journey from childhood to adulthood above the accompanying high-fantasy love triangle through the ages. The final product is somewhat disconcerting, I think: a mixed-up hybrid of Romantic bildungsroman and twenty-first century dramatics that is almost certain to turn some established fans away.
Still, I think there is something undeniably ‘Kay’ about it. It works on the same themes and assumptions as his earlier work (primarily, sacrifice, love and loss), and conforms to the same rhythms of prose. Like all of his fiction it is heavy with poetic foreshadowing and historical resonance, musing repeatedly on the power of place and the implications of the past. It strikes me that at least some of the characters are prototypical also – Phelan, Cadell and Ysabel all have their previous incarnations in his oeuvre. The trajectory of their love triangle is a native to his alternate histories and he has returned to it again and again as a way of exploring cultural and social tension (e.g. in The Lions of Al-Rassan, in The Fionavar Tapestry and even in A Song for Arbonne).
Finally, I have said elsewhere that by combining the contemporary (and somewhat mundane) thrust of Ned’s maturation with more typical Romantic motifs, Kay has sought to reinvent the stereotypical stable-boy to magician/ruler transformation of high fantasy. I have suggested that he has co-opted the ur-story of the genre and used the depth of association in Ysabel – with history, with landscape and with his own previous work – to re-approach the oldest trope in the book: the rite of passage. The more I think about it, the more successful I think he has been. Some questions remain unanswered for me – the most pressing being the extent to which Ysabel acts as a sequel to The Fionavar Tapestry – but otherwise I am well reconciled to it.
One thing I found surprising was that Guy Kay himself seems surprised that people are identifying Ysabel as YA or a sort. He seems to feel that he didn’t write it to be YA at all, yet it obviously has an adolescent protagonist coming of age in various ways. Obviously its not being marketed to the YA crowd, but what exactly is setting it apart? Is it simply that publishers figure that the YA folks don’t know enough history to make the book meaningful, or is this really a fully mature novel with only a passing similarity to YA?
For me, I assumed it was intended to be YA as two of the principal chracters were indeed YAs. And indeed their age does inform the decisions that are made in the novel to bring the restless spirits to peace at long last. Contrast the outcome here with the less than pleasant ending of Holdstock’s Merlin’s Wood where history cannot be overcome no matter how high a price is paid.
What I find remarkable is that Ysabel makes a dandy ghost story as well!
I must admit that it didn’t feel like a YA novel to me. Not that I’ve read many of them, but those I have read tend to focus on teenage concerns whereas this seems to be merely a book that had a teenager as the main (but by no means the only) protagonist.
The other thing I’m hoping you folks will talk about is the Fionavar connection. I’ve been amazed at how few reviewers knew about it (even Clute, though he’s astute enough to spot that there is another story in the background). I thought that Kay did a wonderful job of writing a sequel that required no knowledge of the original books.
It’s not that the link isn’t obvious which intrigues me. Mind you, I went out and found a copy of the trade paper edition so I can read it after being told by Cheryl there was a connection!
It’s that none of the publicity materials hint that Ysabel is anything but a standalone novel, nor does the Ysabel website suggest a connection either.
I corresponded briefly with Kay about this when the book first came out and I got the impression he regarded it as something of an Easter Egg for loyal fans.
So a question if you’ve read the trilogy. So would know there was a link have made a difference in appreciating the story? Or would it have made no meaningful difference?
So do I get to feel smug because I did mention the Fionavar link in my review? It didn’t seem to me to be a big deal at the time, and I agree with Cheryl that it seemed more like a nudge-wink to his fans than an important structural element. Carrying over characters from an earlier book doesn’t necessarily make a book a sequel, or part of a series; any number of writers have done the same thing.
I heard from Kay after my review came out, and he seemed to think that a much more important overlooked aspect of the book is the closing quotation from John Berger, which more or less directly contradicts (or undercuts, or subverts) the opening quotation from Robert Graves. I think he regards the movement of the novel itself as leading us away from the Graves position and toward the Berger.
As for the YA element, it doesn’t seem a big deal either. I only read or review YAs if they demonstrate significant interest as novels, and I felt this worked pretty well either way. I did tend to regard it as a YA, since I agree with Karen and Cat that the youth of the protagonists informs their actions, since the coming of age business is pretty much on the surface, since relationships with parents are a major theme, and since the budding romance of the two teens is handled in a very hip, YA fashion. In other words, it’s not merely the age of the protagonists that makes it read like YA; most of Graham Joyce’s adult novels feature young protagonists, but the narrative voice pretty clearly tells us they’re not YA. I didn’t get that sort of feel from this novel, and in fact I think the YA aspects contribute to its energy.
I read the Fionavar Trilogy a good many years ago now – they were the first GGK novels I ever read – but I think that even a vague familiarity with them enhances the experience of reading Ysabel. Which isn’t to say that they’re essential, only that the thematic dialogue between the books is instructive and also helps to explain some of the character decisions that Kay has made (e.g. the dynamic between Kim and Ned’s mother). I think the decision to ‘play down’, and even deny, the importance of the connection is puzzling. It makes sound commercial sense – it simply wouldn’t sell to as wide a market with even a whiff of a ‘sequel’ label attached – but it doesn’t do justice to the potential connectivity of the narrative. So, yes, perhaps it does make a meaningful difference to appreciating the story; I felt like it did for me.
I have not read Fionavar at all (Ysabel was my first GGK novel), but I think the connection is important even if the reader is unaware of it. As I read it, thinking that the book was completely standalone, I was impressed with the depth of the character’s backgrounds. I remember thinking, “Gosh, it’s like the author had a few books worth of backstory on these people that he knows about but is keeping in the background intentionally.”
So it turns out that there really are three such books. It added a lot to the feeling of depth of the narrative and the world building. It also heightened the feeling that Ned was trying to create his own life story and having to push aside all these other established and important stories, even if I as a reader didn’t know exactly what they were.
I hadn’t thought of it that way, Karen. But it makes sense that even if you haven’t read Fionavar you feel it looming over the narrative, and I especially like the idea that Ned has to emerge *through* it in order to become his own story. I think the epigraph and epilogue express almost exactly this idea – that one story emerges from the many stories. I’m guessing that Kay himself would say that Ysabel is grounded not only in Fionavar, but also in the wider narratives of the myths, history and landscape of Provence.