YSABEL, by Guy Gavriel kay


Lochaber Axeman, QC
Feb 9, 2008
Review of Ysabel, Guy Gavriel Kay, Viking Press, 2007

What can I say about this book? If I see a new Kay book on the shelf at the bookstore, I buy it without hesitation, because I love everything that this author has done. Tigana was one of the most beautiful novels I have ever read, and besides his other impressive work, Kay has credits to his name dating back to his work on The Silmarillion with Christopher Tolkien. My quick buy didn’t work out this time, though, and the reason is that the way this story is told makes no sense to me as a reader, and I cannot fathom why Kay wrote this book from the perspective of a teenager.:confused:

The story is about a fifteen year-old boy from Canada who accompanies his father, a world-renowned photographer, on a trip to Provence (southern France). Very quickly into this trip, the characters get caught up in a millenia-old love triangle, a contest to win the love of Ysabel, which has been waged between a Gaul and a Roman for over 2000 years. The book is short enough that summarizing the plot further will spoil it completely.

What is good about this book? Kay’s lyrical style has always enthralled me, and I must say that it shone through in several parts of the book. The descriptive passages put me in Provence, and I could almost smell coffee and French cigarettes at times, and feel the strong Mediterranean sunshine. The fantasy part of the book was typical of Kay’s historical fantasy style, but it could have used much more explanation. Kay’s research, as always, is impeccable. The historical detail that I expected was present throughout the book.

What did I not like about this book? I was severely let down. I have read every novel that Kay has done, but Ysabel was truly disappointing. The telling of the story from the teenager’s point of view did not work. It seemed juvenile instead of new, like the idea of a new writer doing a coming-of-age novel. The dialogue was appropriate, but that may be what I didn’t like, because it was teenagers talking. Also, the mixing of the modern world and the fantastic and magical of Gallic France didn’t work for me. There is a direct tie-in to Kay’s brilliant Fionavar Tapestry, but it was not done in a way that I liked. My overall impression was of a book that was quick. Quickly planned and quickly written, and published more-or-less as a filler between Last Light of the Sun and whatever great novel Kay will come up with next. Perhaps this was a short story that was turned into a novel, but there was not enough plot to go around. The characters were similarly superficially explored. There was also great potential for digging into a family dispute going back decades that was resolved a little too easily.

I am keeping this book, merely to keep my Kay hardcover collection complete, and I give it two and a half stars for the good bits. Don’t buy the hardcover, unless like me you want a complete Kay collection. Buy the softcover for a quick beach read and wait for Kay to return to form with his next book.


Apr 12, 2006
I'm with you C-man. It was my least favorite Kay. It's still good but just not the sort of edge of my seat that I expect from GGK. I did think it would probably make good teen/ young adult reading. I found myself thinking I would have liked the book when I was 14 or so because it's about making a personal connection with history. I think Kay is the kind of guy who goes to visit a ruin or cathedral an just feels a connection to the culture that made it and asks himself what life was like for those people. I think it was a literal metaphor for that feeling.