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