BE­TWEEN TWO WORLDS Known for his imag­ined his­to­ries, Guy Gavriel Kay weaves a mod­ern strand into his latest novel

Vancouver Sun - - Weekend Review - BY DAR­RYL WHET­TER

The mar­ket­ing hype for Guy Gavriel Kay’s new novel, Ys­abel, la­bels it a “ de­par­ture” for the vet­eran fan­tasy writer. Given that Kay’s nine pre­vi­ous nov­els — in­clud­ing the pop­u­lar Fion­avar Ta­pes­try tril­ogy — are all fan­tasies, the de­par­ture is pre­sum­ably that Ys­abel com­bines a fan­tasy story with a con­tem­po­rary fam­ily drama.

To the pos­si­ble dis­ap­point­ment of his nu­mer­ous fans, the bet­ter story here is def­i­nitely the fam­ily drama, so much so that one won­ders why it is tied at all to a du­bi­ous fan­tasy plot.

Ys­abel is the story of 15- year- old Ned Mar­riner, who tags along to Provence while his fa­ther, Ed, and his crew at­tempt to pho­to­graph this land­scape steeped in Celtic, Ro­man and Euro­pean blood and his­tory. One day, on a shoot in a cathe­dral, Ned bumps into, first, Kate, an Amer­i­can ex­change stu­dent, and then an age­less man in­volved in a time- trav­el­ling duel for a be­witch­ing maiden. Some­how, two men — a Ro­man and a Celt — are yanked through time to fight cease­lessly for the in­com­pa­ra­bly beau­ti­ful Ys­abel.

A cer­e­mony re­plete with torches, ru­ins and sac­ri­fices al­lows the semi- im­mor­tal Ys­abel to pos­sess tem­po­rar­ily the body of a con­tem­po­rary wo­man. Given the in­volve­ment of Ned and Kate, the cho­sen wo­man for this in­car­na­tion is Me­lanie, a mem­ber of Ed’s pho­to­graphic crew.

The con­scrip­tion of Me­lanie com­pels Ned and Kate to ex­plain their in­volve­ment in the seem­ingly un­be­liev­able fan­tasy plot to Ned’s par­ents, other fam­ily mem­bers and the rest of the pho­to­graphic team. To­gether they all scram­ble to find the dis­ap­peared Me­lanie be­fore the du­elling Celt and Ro­man do.

The two halves of this story don’t fit to­gether eas­ily or mean­ing­fully. Ys­abel never ceases to feel like an abrupt fu­sion of two very dif­fer­ent halves, as if High­lander were ar­bi­trar­ily spliced into Euro­pean Vacation. For pages at a time, it’s a dy­namic and rea­son­ably com­pelling con­tem­po­rary fam­ily drama, com­plete with shift­ing af­fec­tions and an­noy­ances. Then, in a flash, we’re bom­barded with the overused props of the fan­tasy genre: “ mis­t­wrapped” mem­o­ries, Cel­tophilia, hid­den daggers, in­can­ta­tions and slaugh­tered bulls.

The fan­tasy plot is awk­ward and clichéd. A gor­geous, im­pe­ri­ous wo­man with flow­ing red hair — a walk­ing piece of van art — is fought over like chat­tel by a sen­su­ous Celt and a cun­ning Ro­man.

Kay makes a struc­tural gam­ble when he at­tempts to bring the fan­tasy plot into the present story through di­a­logue. Rather than build­ing in­ter­est in his time- trav­el­ling char­ac­ters by show­ing us their com­plex his­tory in flash­back chap­ters, he tries to cram their multi- cen­tury story into brief con­ver­sa­tions. The fan­tasy di­a­logue is thus mul­ti­ply bur­dened: It has to do the ex­pos­i­tory telling in shop­worn fan­tasy lex­i­con.

The ac­cu­rate yet ca­sual lan­guage used for Ned’s and Kate’s scenes is sadly aban­doned for any scene in­volv­ing a dag­ger. A mus­cu­lar man with a mane of hair an­nounces that he would “ prove my love in the stranger’s blood tonight and al­ways, with joy.” Not just wooden, the fan­tasy di­a­logue is pe­ri­od­i­cally in­com­pre­hen­si­ble.

In a cer­e­mony in which the char­ac­ters name one an­other, Ys­abel replies that she was “ Named so, or not. Be­fore that scar and af­ter. By the sea and from the waves.” Since magic af­fords any­thing to the plot, why isn’t be­liev­able di­a­logue an op­tion?

The chal­lenges of the fan­tasy story sadly eclipse Kay’s gen­uine ac­com­plish­ments in the fam­ily drama. Most com­pelling is the ac­cu­racy of young Ned’s voice. While the rest of the fam­ily is in France, Ned’s physi­cian mother works in Dar­fur, a source of anx­i­ety for Ned: “ The deal was, his mother would phone them here ev­ery sec­ond evening. That, Ned thought bit­terly, was go­ing to for sure keep her safe.”

Al­though the fan­tasy ro­mance is still­born with cliché, the teen ro­mance is vivid and lively. Re­flect­ing on Kate’s pre­pared­ness, Ned thinks, “ She just about forced you to call her a geek, that girl.”

Sus­pense, that lost art in Cana­dian lit­er­a­ture, also pulses here pe­ri­od­i­cally.

The mar­keters may want to call Ys­abel a de­par­ture for Guy Gavriel Kay, but its at­ten­tion to fam­ily dy­nam­ics and his­tory and its con­fi­dence with emo­tional plots prob­a­bly mark it as more of a tran­si­tional novel, sus­pended be­tween his past work in fan­tasy and pos­si­ble fu­ture work in lit­er­ary fiction. Like some of the char­ac­ters in Ys­abel, Kay is caught be­tween worlds.

On Thurs­day at 7: 30 p. m., the Van­cou­ver In­ter­na­tional Writ­ers Fes­ti­val will present Guy Gavriel Kay, in con­ver­sa­tion with John Burns, at Si­mon Fraser Univer­sity at Har­bour Cen­tre, $ 12, 604- 681- 6330.

Dar­ryl Whet­ter is the au­thor of A Sharp Tooth in the Fur and a for­mer pro­fes­sor of creative writ­ing and English.

Fan­tasy writer Guy Gavriel Kay is headed to­ward lit­er­ary fiction, judg­ing by his book Ys­abel.

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