Guy Gavriel Kay has mesmerized readers with his realistic, historically-steeped novels set in alternate versions of actual eras and places. He has won or been nominated for numerous awards and praised for the depth and authenticity of his research. In his new novel, he returns to his roots as a writer with a contemporary tale set in southern France, entwined with a mythic ages-old struggle between three doomed lovers.
The protagonist is Ned Marriner, the fifteen-year-old son of a renowned photographer, who, while on a photo-shoot with his father, stumbles upon an ancient enigma from the past about to materialize in the present. As Ned struggles with the onset of an unexpected precognition and becomes immersed in a battle between the enigmatic titular character, Ysabel, and the two enemies who love her, he also becomes aware of secrets hidden in his own family.
The premise is intriguing, and Kay delivers with his customary confidence. The tone and style are more direct than in his other books, however, and the point of view almost exclusively that of his adolescent protagonist. Kay succeeds admirably in depicting the emotions of a youth hovering on the edge of manhood, as well as the eerie occurrences Ned must confront, but at times the narrative falters due to the lack of a more mature interpretation of the book’s central events. Likewise, while the near-immortal Ysabel captured my attention with her allure and the effect she exerts upon those she meets, her own story is revealed only in fragments, even though it promises more complexity than that of her modern counterparts. In this novel about how the past affects the present, it was the untold story of Ysabel’s past I yearned for the most in Kay’s otherwise accomplished tale.