There is almost enough entertainment value in Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay's first full-on contemporary fantasy (The Fionavar Tapestry had some contemporary scenes, but that's all), to overcome the shortcomings of its story. This is the first Kay novel I've been disappointed in, though I'll admit to liking much of it. Though there's no indication Ysabel is going to be marketed as a young-adult, that's kinda what it is, starring a likable 15-year-old hero caught up in the culmination of a battle spanning 2600 years. Kay has a large cast of hugely appealing protagonists who give you your emotional investment in the unfolding tale. But the tale itself has way too many holes, and leaves a bevy of unanswered questions. At the end of the day, Ysabel is somewhat less than the sum of its parts. It never entirely comes together as a satisfying whole.
Ned is the teenage son of Edward Marriner, a world-renowned photographer. They are in Aix-en-Provence in the south of France for six weeks, where Edward is working on photos for a coffee-table book of old cathedrals, accompanied by a small crew and Edward's ultra-efficient personal assistant Melanie. It is at one cathedral that Ned meets Kate, an American exchange student, as well as a mysterious individual who comes up out of a grate leading to Roman-era ruins beneath the cathedral. Ned's encounter with this person gives him a strange feeling, as if Ned suddenly possesses a vague connection to past incidents he shouldn't know. The stranger mutters some creepy lines about an enemy he's seeking, then disappears.
To cut a long synopsis short, we learn that the mystery man is named Phelan, and he and his arch-rival Cadell have been waging a battle down through the centuries for the love of an enigmatic (is there any other kind in a story like this?) woman named Ysabel. Cadell and Ysabel belonged to a tribe of Celts who settled in the south of France 2600 years ago. When they encountered the Roman traders led by Phelan, a rivalry for Ysabel began between the men that has lasted to this day. Ned has a connection to these events he can't properly explain, as does his aunt. Estranged from the family since before Ned was born, she and her husband turn up to help Ned when he and Kate get unwittingly caught up in a ritual they witness on the night of Beltaine, and must rescue a friend drawn into Cadell and Phelan's age-old feud.
As you can probably see, Kay's enduring fondness for the classical world has not been sidelined. He's found an inventive way of projecting the ancient world onto the present one, aided, no doubt, by his choice of location; so much of Europe, pockmarked as it is with ruins and shadowed by millennia of history, seems to exist in more than one time period at once.
But here lies the problem. There's a lack of clarity about the whole feud. We understand how it began, and its ramifications (it led to a war in antiquity in which over 200,000 were slaughtered). But as for the fantasy elements, Kay never makes clear exactly what magical or mystical process took place to cause this feud to be fought and re-fought over and over down the centuries. Okay, so Druids are involved, and there are wolf and boar spirits, but in the effort to evoke an ambiance of eerie ancient mystery, Kay doesn't give us much in the way of narrative understanding. Most problematic is that Ysabel herself remains a hazy, ill-defined figure. We see her very little, and know her almost not at all. So apart from her being some sort of Celtic Helen of Troy, we never gain a full appreciation of why the love of two men grew into this timeless feud that has taken countless lives. Who is Ysabel, really? Is she just a Celtic princess who happened to be the hottest redhead in Provence in 600 BCE, or is she part goddess, or what? What is it about her that has defied time itself, and how does she possess living women down through time to sustain herself? We never really know. If Kay had simply made us identify with and understand the love Phelan and Cadell have for her, an all-encompassing obsession lasting, in Cadell's words, "until the sun dies and the last wind blows through the worlds," it would have made worlds of difference. But we don't feel the love at that cathartic level. The emotional core of Ysabel's story remains aloof.
Thus it is that we are propelled through the book not by any deep identification with or emotional connection to the Phelan/Cadell/Ysabel axis, but by a more immediate concern that Ned rescue his abducted (for lack of a better term) friend. This leads to a strange phenomenon indeed: a Guy Gavriel Kay novel that only really works on the shallow level of a race-against-time Hollywood thriller. Nothing wrong with a story working on that level. It's just obvious that Kay intended there to be more going on here, and his peerless prior track record of nine wins and no losses means that a Kay novel will always butt up against higher expectations than, say, a Terry Goodkind. We expect more to be going on, too.
In all fairness, there is a little more. Ned handles all of the mystical strangeness that is changing his life in the way I think a real person would. When the going gets rough, he and Kate eventually appeal to Edward and his family for help, and the rescue becomes a real team effort. Unlike so much genre fiction, in which super-competent heroes seem to know just what to do to save the day, Ned and his family are flying by the seat of their pants, often operating only on guesswork. Most convincing are the scenes where everyone gets together to compare notes and draw up plans, even Googling for clues. This is really how people would solve a problem, even a 2600-year-old one, that falls into their laps, and it pays off in making the book's protagonists relatable. (Indeed, I suspect a number of Kay's male readers will fall gaga in love with über-geekette Melanie.)
But Phelan and Cadell are less believable. They are neither heroes nor villians, really, and when their every threatening gesture is fended off with a snarky comeback from Ned or his uncle or Edward, it's hard to find them menacing or dangerous. Phelan's boast that he's not a good man and he's killed children before loses much of its edge when you know he'll never follow through on it here. Both of these men have led armies into devastating war, and yet all a 15-year-old boy has to do is talk shit back to them and they back down? Hmm. The story's sense of conflict is much weaker than it should be.
Some of Kay's action scenes fail to convince, also. In one early scene, Phelan and Ned are set upon by a pack of wild dogs (well, actually spirits in wild dog form) in broad daylight in front of dozens of shocked witnesses in a café in Aix. Nothing is heard of the incident after it happens, which is odd, as you'd think it'd be the sort of thing to draw the attention of the gendarmes and the local news. In fact, I've seen less earth-shaking headlines than "Patrons attacked by wild dogs at French café" on the home page of CNN.com.
Ysabel is a mixed bag, and will appeal most to readers who find the characters appealing enough, and the eerie atmosphere sufficiently evocative to overlook its narrative failings. It's nice to see Kay branching out into a different approach to fantasy, as he's taken some criticism over the years for being a guy who just writes fantasy-tinged historical fiction with the serial numbers filed off (Sarantium instead of Byzantium, that kind of thing). But you know, Kay's good at that kind of thing. So while his willingness to come at the genre from a different angle with Ysabel hasn't resulted in a bad novel, he's not fully on form here either.