Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
With Ysabel, author Guy Gavriel Kay takes one of those “wrong place at the wrong time” (depending on how you look at the resulting adventure) stories and turns it on its head. By the time you reach the final page he has so wrapped up this adventure of teenagers Ned and Kate in France that you will want to return to the beginning and rediscover just how he makes the whole book work so seamlessly. This modern day thriller relies heavily upon actions from centuries before. It is very nearly epic in its scope (one of the main characters is Julius Caeser’s real uncle) but conveys its historic significance by keeping the narrative personal. And at its heart is Ned, who can’t let go of the mystery that unfolds one day at a French cathedral.
Ned is accompanying his world famous photographer father as he conducts several shoots in Provence. His mother is a doctor currently doing aide work in Sudan, something that bothers father and son tremendously although they are doing their best to be supportive. Ned and his father are close in a charming but not false manner and his father’s three assistants quickly develop personalities and quirks of their own that prevents them from sinking into secondary character oblivion. Ned meets Kate at a church his father is shooting and the two quickly bond when they find themselves in a threatening situation with a man who appears to be a thief. The stranger makes several comments that hint at a larger intrigue and Ned finds himself unable to let go of the meeting or the odd things the two young people seem to discover after it is over. He and Kate continue to pull away at the threads of the mystery man’s story. Relatively quickly they find events overtaking them and Ned in particular finds himself suffering both physically and psychologically from the initial meeting. Something is happening, something huge, and Ned and Kate seem to be right at the center of it.
In short order Ned’s long estranged maternal aunt appears in the nick of time, he finds himself becoming violently ill and the little bits and pieces of the region’s history that have been gathered to assist his father’s work seem to be suggesting that the contemporary weirdness is likely part of some age old tragedy. When Kate’s behavior becomes odd and Ned finds himself on a hilltop observing a druidic sacrificial ceremony he knows that his life has taken the sort of turn that walking away is not going to solve. Ned has to take charge to save a friend, mend a family and find a solution to an epic historic nightmare. The best part is that it all makes sense and readers are never forced to swallow sudden revelations or perfectly timed coincidences.
One of the things I liked best about Ysabel, other than the fact that it makes a story about Celtic and Roman history both timely and exciting, is that Ned’s family and friends are so real. This is not a kid who decides to go it alone -- he actually turns to his intelligent parent and lays it all out when he knows he is in over his head. Everyone does not come together brilliantly at first and there is certainly more than a few moments when someone is thinking Ned and Kate are crazy. But they don’t dismiss their admittedly bizarre story just because they are teenagers -- they respect them enough to listen and consider that it all might be true. How wonderful to see in a story and it’s even better when the adults act like smart people who manage to be both skeptical and supportive at the same time. This is a group that comes together in fine fashion and makes the book that much more of an enjoyable read.
Ysabel is easily one of the best books I have read in years and I’m delighted to recommend it to teens and adults. (It is published as an adult title but the teen protagonists make it a no-brainer for high schoolers and homeschoolers in particular should flock to this one for the great historic content.) It’s great for boys or girls, history lovers or thrill seekers.
Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay