“Ysabel” is one of the best fiction books I have read in a very long time. It is at times exciting, enlightening, and confounding. It tells a story that is steeped in history and broad emotional themes, as well as visceral and immediate to the world we live in. It is a moving examination of love, conflict, and remembrance.
I picked up the book from the bargain bin because I am a fan of the author – Guy Gavriel Kay. It has been years since I read any of his work, but from the moment my friends and I read it in high school, his book “Tigana” has been one of my top favorite books of all time. (As a side note – you should try “Tigana”. It is the best example I have ever read of how complete and compelling a mythos a truly gifted author can create in the space of just one single book. There is more depth, character, emotion, and scope in that singular volume, than I have seen in some “epic” trilogies.) But enough about “Tigana” – let’s talk about “Ysabel”.
“Ysabel” takes place in France where Ned Mariner, a 15 year-old Canadian, is spending the summer with his father who is shooting photographs for his new book. While there, Ned meets Kate Wegner, an American exchange student. Together, they stumble upon a mysterious man deep inside a cathedral; which in turn starts them down a path towards an adventure neither expects, nor particularly wants. They are drawn in to conflict older and deeper than either knows. The strange man himself sums it up best when he tells them:
I think you ought to go now. You have blundered into a corner of a very old story…
It’s very tempting to tell you more about the story – it is compelling – but for me, that would ruin part of the essential joy that I found in reading this tale. Reading “Ysabel” is like savoring a meal planned and prepared for you by a 3 star Michelin chef. You don’t really know what is coming next, nor do you get things in large, unmanageable bites. Instead, Gavriel Kay slowly gives you a taste of the story, and then gives you a chance to digest it, to contemplate it, to savor it. There are even the occasional wonderful surprises (I will tell you that, for longtime readers, there is an unexpected and very fulfilling connection between this story and Gavariel Kay’s “The Fionavar Tapestry”.) It’s a welcome change to so much fiction you read where, four pages in, you understand where you are going and how you are going to get there. Here, you are taken on a journey.
Gavriel Kay treats his readers with respect. He doesn’t feel compelled to lay everything out for you on a silver platter. He doesn’t overly explain things, just to make SURE that you didn’t miss his subtle references. Instead, he assumes a certain level of intelligence on the part of his readers and gives the story the attention and care that it needs. He understands that part of the JOY of reading is that of sense of discovery. With “Ysabel” I lost myself in the story and was able to experience it in the moment.
The last thing I will say is that Gavriel Kay’s prose is a thing of beauty. He has enviable talent of being able to infuse his writing with a gravity and grace that lends it the weight of days gone past. At the same time, it never feels dated or forced, and he just as easily writes in a contemporary voice that speaks of things current and relevant. He is accessible and he peppers that narrative with small insights that are both simple and profound. It’s this blend of beauty and functionality that makes this story so enjoyable.
”Ysabel” is a story about many things: love, loss, understanding, and history. It is also a story about echoes. About the themes and passions that run through our lives, through our society, and the ripples that our choices make throughout our history. It is a story of remembrance and the marks that we make on the world. Ned himself sums it up best at the tale draws to a close:
Would what had happened slip and drift like memories did? Become something you thought of at times, and the less often as years went by? A story, your history, as you were carried forward into other stories and other moments that became your life. Other people.
That is the question at the heart of “Ysabel” – how will your story be remembered? I hope you take the chance the read the story and see for yourself. I think that you will enjoy the answer.
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