I finished Guy Gavriel Kay's newest novel over a week ago; since then I've been trying to figure out what I thought of it.
Spoilers for Ysabel follow!
GGK's career path led many to expect a far different novel this time out. He started out with his epic fantasy trilogy The Fionavar Tapestry, in which he delved deeply into that genre and pretty much wallowed in all its tropes before coming out clean on the other side; then he moved on to a subgenre he kinda-sorta invented, which I call "historical fantasy". His main aim was to explore themes and events from history, by transposing them into fantasy realms of his own creation; thus we had Tigana, set in a faux-Italy, A Song for Arbonne, set in a faux-medieval Provence, the great Lions of Al-Rassan set in a fantastical Moorish Spain, the Sarantine Mosaic, a duology set in a faux-Byzantium, and most recently, The Last Light of the Sun, set in a faux-medieval Celtic Britain.
From all this, many wondered where he'd go next -- historical Russia, perhaps? Or the Holy Roman Empire? I myself hoped he'd venture into the Orient. What I did not expect was for him to go in a Charles de Lint-type direction. Ysabel is set in modern-day Provence, and that's where it stays. It's pure real-world fantasy, all the way through.
Which isn't to say that GGK avoids his traditional historical themes entirely, because he doesn't. Instead, he seems more interested here in directly exploring how the tales from centuries ago still ripple through to our time and shape us and who we are today.
Ned Marriner is a fifteen-year-old kid, traveling with his photographer father who is on assignment in Provence. While his father is off taking photos, Ned goes wandering through a centuries-old cathedral, where he meets a girl his age named Kate. They then meet someone else, someone quite mysterious. And they find things in the tunnels beneath the cathedral that are equally mysterious. Ned goes with his father's crew to scout out a location for a shoot, and suffers from migraines and visions of blood when he reaches the place of an old battlefield. He and Kate meet more mysterious people -- and then they find themselves smack in the middle of a drama that apparently plays out repeatedly, over and over and over through history. It is a love triangle between a woman and two men. In this iteration, the woman takes the name "Ysabel" -- and takes the body of Ned's father's aide, Melanie.
This was all very interesting, and Ysabel has a type of momentum that isn't usually the kind of thing one experiences in a GGK book. I'm long accustomed to reading GGK's historical novels (set in lands that never were, of course), and it was an odd sensation to read him in a more contemporary, "supernatural suspense story" mode. The book's focus is also more intimate than GGK has written before; the cast of characters is small and the stakes do not revolve around entire realms but on a small set of individual lives.
Something strange happens a ways into the book, though, that took me a little off-guard. The two characters from The Fionavar Tapestry who returned to Earth at that tale's conclusion show up. Kim Ford and Dave Martyniuk are Ned's aunt and uncle, and they are summoned to give Ned aid in saving Melanie from the fate of being displaced from her own body.
The central conceit of Fionavar is that all worlds, including our own, are mere reflections of Fionavar, the "first of all worlds". Thus, by directly bringing Kim and Dave into play here, GGK seems to indicate that the love triangle herein is also reflective of something deep that happened in Fionavar, and sure enough, that series had a couple of ill-fated love triangles at its heart (Arthur-Guinevere-Lancelot, Amairgen-Lisen-Galadan). The problem, though, lies in the execution: I'm not sure that a reader coming to Ysabel without having read Fionavar is going to understand it all. The events of that series are referenced a number of times, but always obliquely.
I found Ysabel to be an engaging read, and yet, somehow I felt disconnected with it at the same time. A big part of that is the presence of Kim and Dave: frankly, I'm not certain that I ever wanted to know what happened to them after The Darkest Road ended. That series, whenever I read it, always feels so complete, that the re-emergence of those characters felt strange to me, almost overpoweringly so. I think of GGK's oft-stated insistence that he'll never reveal just what befell the three women who saw a riselka at the end of Tigana; I feel as though now he's done just that. (I did, however, get a fanboy thrill when I learned what false surname Dave's been using in Africa.)
Of course, first impressions of a GGK novel are often unreliable. I can think of few authors whose books more lend themselves to re-reading than GGK, and this may well be another in a long line of such examples. Now, to schedule a re-read sometime in the future....