Guy Gavriel Kay, Ysabel, Roc, 2008.
This is a fantasy novel set in our world, and that is both its strength and its weakness. Kay returns to the approach adopted in his early trilogy, the Fionavar Tapestry. This trilogy featured characters taken from our world to Fionavar, where magic is part of life. In Ysabel, the magic happens in our world, and some characters from the Fionavar Tapestry return.
This is the story of Ned Marriner, aged 15, a Canadian in Provence, who becomes involved in the magic of the place. It turns out that this is no coincidence, as he is related to Kim Ford, a character familiar to readers of the Fionavar Tapestry.
One of my problems with reading fantasy is that the magic often seems arbitrary. Sometimes there is a consistent system of magic rules, the equivalent of the laws of nature. In this case, the story doesn't make much sense, at least to me:
Once upon a time, the first Greek traders arrived in Provence, and a local Celtic woman chose one of the Greek traders as her husband, thus angering the Celtic man who was expecting to marry her. After that, over the centuries, these two men seem to be reincarnated, in their original bodies, and fight each other for the love of the woman. In one incarnation, the Greek was (or became) the Roman general Marius who fought a famous battle in Provence. It is not clear whether this change took place at Marius's birth in Rome, or only when he arrived in Provence. The woman, meanwhile, takes over the body of a living woman in a Druidic rite, and each time she keeps some of the characteristics of the woman she has possessed. The rivalry between the two men, encouraged by the woman, caused all of the major battles that took place in Provence over the centuries. Usually one of the men died, and the other claimed the woman, and they lived a normal life thereafter. I am confused as to why the men appear in their original bodies while the woman's spirit must possess an existing woman and be less consistent since the occupied woman's spirit influences her behaviour.
However, having suspended disbelief at the strange inconsistency of the magic involved, one discovers that Kay is here revisiting one of his main themes in many of his works - the evil done in the name of love. The men claim they are fighting each other for the woman's love, and she seems to not only accept this but expect and even enjoy it. The battles often cause the slaughter of thousands of innocent people. It seems to me that this should not be called love. It is selfish, possessive and competitive passion. Love should be something that improves and inspires the lovers to greatness, not something that turns them into greedy and violent rivals.
Another theme explored here is the clash of cultures between the traditional Celtic way of life (portrayed as inherently linked to the land, although even before the Greeks and Romans arrived in the region many different tribes and cultures existed and moved around this part of Europe), and the "modern" Graeco-Roman culture, involving different religious and cultural elements. While readers may choose to identify with the perceived underdog, the culture that was first occupied by outsiders and then obliterated, further contemplation may show that the Celtic way of life was quite primitive and violent. Some evidence shows that the Druids conducted human sacrifice. While the Roman occupation may have been brutal, I find it hard to believe that most modern readers would have preferred the Celtic culture to have prevailed.
The book is full of beautiful descriptions of the landscape and sites of Kay's beloved Provence. If I ever travel there, I will take this book with me as a sort of guide. It seems to be accurately researched, and here Kay can apply his historical research more directly than in his fantasy novels set in other worlds, which are only loosely based on our history, being sort of parallels to our world. This is one advantage of this novel. One can relate to real places in our world more easily than to imagined landscapes and cities that we will never visit. Perhaps some readers also find it easier to identify with modern day characters from our world than with people from invented worlds and cultures. However, I enjoy the exploration of what it is to be human that features in works set in different worlds in both fantasy and science fiction.
The plot is a simple quest. Ned and his new American friend Kate witness the Druidic ceremony where the woman's spirit possesses a present-day woman, in this case Ned's father's assistant Melanie. They see Melanie turn into a different woman, who takes the name Ysabel, and then challenges the two men to search for her and find her within three days. Ned and his friends and relatives then try to find Ysabel before the men do, assuming that if one of them finds her first there will be no way of bringing Melanie back, but not knowing if it would be possible to bring her back anyway.
Ned's character is well-drawn, in a sensitive portrait of a modern adolescent undergoing a strange process of rapid maturation. Kate, however, is an underdeveloped character. Kay gives her a characteristic mannerism (biting her lip), and otherwise makes her similar in character to the disappeared Melanie, which is no accident as Kate could have been the woman who became Ysabel, and as Ned is attracted to both of them, probably for similar reasons.
As always in fantasy novels, good triumphs and our hero saves the day. Ned manages to bring Melanie back; the two men are sacrificed in a way that is supposed to end the cycle and prevent further incarnations; he comes to terms with his magical powers; and there are hints that he may be rewarded by the ultimate growing-up experience, sex. The novel does not resolve this issue, as Ned appreciates the attentions of the grateful Melanie, but postpones any action, and later spends time with Kate, who may be interested and seems a more acceptable partner, being the same age as Ned, but the book ends before anything happens. Since sexual passion (not love) was the cause of the whole recurring story, it is seen here as a force to be treated with caution, and not just because Ned is young and inexperienced.
I enjoyed reading this book more the second time, and it is moving and well-written. However, I consider it not Kay's best work, and plan to write about his other novels later.