Guy Gavriel Kay gives yet another stunning example of his talent for interleaving reality and fantasy. Review by S.K. Slevinski

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Ysabel is, at once, not what fans are accustomed to seeing from Kay, and yet everything that devoted readers have come to expect. Magic, modernity and truly compelling character conflict make this novel the first must-read of 2007 for anyone who loves to get lost in literature.

Main character Ned Marriner has accompanied his father on a photo shoot in the south of France. It's a mildly-educational excuse to get some time away from school, and a chance for Ned to see the world, even with an iPod ringing in his ears. But lurking in the back of his mind is an uncomfortable truth—Ned and his father spend their days in relative safety, waiting for evening phone calls from Ned's mother, who is stationed in a war zone for Doctors Without Borders. Ned's task of keeping himself distracted is helped along after meeting Kate, a well-spoken and unapologetic self-professed "geek", an American student on an exchange program in France. Their friendship is quickly cemented by a peculiar encounter in the church where Ned's father's photography crew is shooting—they happen upon a man in the ancient layers of church cellars who doesn't seem to "fit" in their time period. As Ned and Kate attempt to unravel the mystery of this encounter, Ned comes to realize that he has been affected more deeply by the experience than he first thought—unexpected sensory powers are awakened in him, surfacing in particular locales in increasing intensity. When, finally, Ned is contacted by his mother's estranged sister, he discovers that the strange happenings may be part of a family legacy.

This novel gives Guy Gavriel Kay a chance to show his talent for a variety of writing styles, carrying readers swiftly along with an economical modern style, delving into patches of beautifully wrought prose worthy of any of his historical fantasies, and finally braiding the two styles together when needed. It is partly in this way that he balances the modern and magical/historical sequences in this book, both where they coalesce and where one intrudes upon the other. In many ways, this is a novel of contrast, but Kay makes it equally a novel of continuity. The backbone of this story is its main character's conflicts. It is Ned, the choices he makes and the people he cares about that drive this novel. Kay does an excellent job of keeping Ned's motivations "on the page" even when their presence is implicit. The highlight of this novel is Ned's labor of love for a person he never expected to care about.

With Ysabel, Kay strengthens his canon of literary fantasy, but with the same stroke, opens the door to readers who might otherwise have been reluctant to try fantasy. The real world, modern day milieu and characters are a perfect vehicle for transporting the uninitiated into the imagination of fantasy. While this approach has certainly seen a fair bit of use—Kay's Fionavar has been among those to travel this road before—Ysabel renders it with the fresh perspective of a unique character.

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S.K. Slevinski is senior editor for ARWZ Literary Magazine and a long time reader of alternative reality fiction. She is currently a graduate student, specializing in folklore.

Alternative Reality Web Zine: ISSN# 1559-3037

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