Ysabel is GGK’s tenth novel, published in 2007. Above is the Canadian cover. Click through to the art gallery for additional cover artwork.
“Everyone comes from somewhere else.”
Provence, in the south of France, is a part of the world that has been—and continues to be—called a paradise. But one of the lessons that history teaches is that paradise is coveted and fought over. Successive waves of invaders have claimed—or tried to claim—those vineyards, rivers, olive groves, and hills.
In Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, Ysabel, this duality—of exquisite beauty and violent history— is explored in a work that marks a departure from Kay’s historical fantasies set in various analogues of the past.
Ysabel takes place in the world of today: in a modern springtime, in and around the celebrated city of Aix-en-Provence near Marseilles. Dangerous, mythic figures from the Celtic and Roman conflicts of the past erupt into the present, claiming and changing lives.
The protagonist is Ned Marriner, the fifteen year- old son of a well-known photographer. Ned has accompanied his father, Edward Marriner, and a team of assistants to Provence for a six week “shoot.”
Ned’s mother, a physician, is in a terrifyingly different place: she’s working with Doctors without Borders in civil war-torn Sudan. Both father and son are wrestling with fear for her, knowing that she has put herself in the path of extreme danger like this before.
The background story—the family drama as to why Dr. Meghan Marriner feels compelled to perform such risk-taking, over-achieving acts of heroism—emerges partway through the novel, after the mythic elements have begun to make their presence felt.
The first supernatural figure enters the novel dramatically in the first chapter. While Edward is outside, photographing the façade of Aix’s cathedral, Ned wanders the muted, gloomy interior. He thinks he’s alone. Two people are in there with him, however. One is an American girl, Kate Wenger. Kate, who is studying in France on a high-school exchange program, turns out to be the sort of history “geek” who knows all about the cathedral, and she offers to show Ned the ancient baptistery off to one side. As they approach, they see a bald, scarred man shifting a heavy metal grate that covers the ancient Roman paving upon which the medieval cathedral was built.
In fact, the grate covers rather more, and the man they observe draws a knife as he orders them to leave. He also says, “The world will end before I ever find him in time,” which is not the sort of remark high-school students are accustomed to hearing.
For mingled reasons of courage and stubbornness, bound up with what his mother is doing in a war zone, Ned goes down into the exposed space after the mysterious man leaves. What he finds begins his immersion into a world of legend and starts the engine of the plot.
The novel tracks Ned, Kate, and others as they slowly come to terms with what it is they seem to have stumbled upon, with what ancient story is playing itself out in this very modern world of iPods, emails, photo shoots, and seven-seater vans whipping along roads walked by Celtic tribes and Roman legions.
The larger-than-life figures of a twenty-five hundred- year-old romantic triangle, with violence spun from it over millennia, are in the world again. Ned, his family, and their friends are shockingly drawn into their story on the eve of April 30—a holy, haunted night in the Celtic year. The night when the borders between the living and the dead are down and fires are lit upon the hills.
Ysabel is an immensely evocative exploration of the power of the past—both the ancient past and that of a single family—to impose itself on the present. Two thousand, five hundred years—or twenty-five. The central stories don’t go away; they stay with us. Or they return.
GGK prepared, on request, a ‘Letter to the Reader’ to go out with early copies of Ysabel to the media, talking a little of how he came to write the book. Here it is, for you to read!
We also have a fascinating interview with GGK taken from the official Penguin Ysabel website, that discusses the process of his historical research for Ysabel. This does have spoilers in terms of broader themes of history and location, but not at all in terms of story or plot – the spoiler-phobic need not be concerned with this one.