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Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
Cover Artist: Larry Rostant
Review by Mel Jacob
Roc Paperback  ISBN/ITEM#: 9780451461902
Date: 05 February 2008 List Price $15.00 Amazon US / Amazon UK / Show Official Info /

{Editor's note: This review originally ran in our February 2007 issue.]

Guy Gavriel Kay's newest fantasy novel, Ysabel, a coming-of-age story, follows the adventures of 15-year-old Ned Marriner taking time off from school to visit Provence with his famous photographer father. Ned's mother, Meghan, works in Darfur with Doctors Without Borders. Both Ned and his father worry for her safety. Then his father's assistant turns up missing and Ned himself is threatened.

Soon Ned has more worries as he stumbles upon two mysterious men who love the same woman. When a Celtic chieftain's daughter chooses a Greek stranger over her Celtic warrior suitor, she sets events in motion that entangle the three of them and now Ned and his family in a struggle for survival. She and the two men have occasionally appeared over the intervening 2,600 years in the same area, often with dire consequences for the inhabitants as the men strive to kill one another and win the woman's eternal love.

Ned discovers abilities he didn't know existed and doesn't know how to use. He sees the historic ruins that cover Provence in a new way. Particularly sensitive to the past deaths and slaughtered populations, he becomes physically sick at several sites.

Uncertain of his own sanity, Ned gets reassurance from an aunt he didn't know he had. His mother had repudiated her older sister and refused to acknowledge her because of an incident from their youth. Aunt Kim helps Ned to accept his new abilities, and he aids the reconciliation of the sisters.

When his father's assistant, the super-organized and at times annoying Melanie, is transformed into Ysabel, Ned must find her and a way to undo the process. Meanwhile he races against time, ignorance, and the two men equally determined to find and claim Ysabel. Druid magic and spirit wolves and boars complicate his search.

An acclaimed fantasy novelist, Kay propels his young-adult story along to an exciting climax. He provides a fascinating overview of the region and its history, but sometimes the amount of detail approaches overkill. Kay develops his female characters to a point, but his focus remains on his hero.

While sophisticated readers will like much of the novel, ultimately they may finish the book less satisfied. He leaves important questions about characters and individual relationships unanswered. In particular, the title character remains an enigma, but, considering the nature of goddesses and romantic ideals, it's possible he meant her to appear that way. This reviewer also found it hard to accept that while the family and his father's assistants work with Ned throughout, at the end they allow him, with night approaching, to go alone up a dangerous mountain -- great for the climax, but somewhat at odds with the nature of the parents as Kay has shown them. Kay has plenty of material to develop into more stories about this rich cast of characters.

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