Provence is the sun-kissed paradise of the south of France. Cookbook and travelogue writers have made a killing from writing about it, or even better, getting their own television show set in its environs. Its charms haven't been lost on some of the great painters either, as both Van Gogh and Cézanne created some their best-known masterpieces in the region.
Maybe it shouldn't be surprising to discover that it also saw some of the ancient world's bloodiest wars and clashes. Dating back to pre-empire Rome's earliest settlements outside of Italy, the conflicts between so-called barbaric Celts and civilized Romans left the earth soaked in blood and memories. In the years since those earliest times, other battles and other peoples have come and gone, raised monuments to their faiths, and finally established permanent residency here among the olive groves of the Romans. The only invaders they need worry about now are the tourists who come to view the ruins and relics of people whose lives have all but vanished into the mists of time.
Ned Marriner is not a regular tourist on a two-week tour. He's accompanying his father, a world-renowned photographer, on his latest coffee table book shoot. At 15 he's more grateful for the fact that he's been pulled out of school a month or so early in order to make the trip then anything else, but the cool remoteness he strives for is sorely tested almost immediately upon arrival.
His father's first day of shooting is at the Cathedral in Aix en Provence and Ned wanders off into the interior of the chapel while his father and his crew set up. While resting in a nave he is surprised by Kate Wenger, a girl his own age studying in France on a student exchange program. Their conversation is interrupted by the sound of a metal grill being clanged into place, and while investigating the sound, they enter into a story older than the Cathedral itself.
The innocuous, everyday occurrence of two awkwardly cool teenagers of the opposite sex meeting for the first time is the unlikely herald for subsequent events, but in the world of Guy Gavriel Kay's newest novel Ysabel, nothing can be considered normal. Ned and Kate's world of iPod Shuffles, mobile phones, and "Google is my midnight lover" is on a collision course with a love triangle that predates Christ.
The bald man with the knife that the two surprise leaving the underground passage of the church not only turns out not to be your average run-of-the-mill tomb raider, their meeting triggers within Ned an awareness that begins to dissolve the barriers between him and another plane of existence.
At first it only manifests itself as an unexplained ability to know when the bald man is nearby, and to have access to information he shouldn't know. But gradually he becomes more and more in tune with the other two parts of the triangle and the endless sorrow that has been theirs to play for millennia.
For those of you familiar with Kay's earlier work, you'll notice some big differences between this book and pretty much anything that he's written before. First there's the fact that it is set primarily in our world. Only once before has our world ever entered into his books, and then only to set the stage for what was to come.
He's never, that I recall, given one character's viewpoint this much focus before. There have been central characters that we've followed around, but there have also been other perspectives of events aside from theirs that have coloured the narrative. Not only does he not do that in Ysabel, he's also made the world so that is seen through the eyes of a 15-year-old male.
This is a decidedly risky thing to do, because it would be very easy to take a wrong step and jar the reader's ear. But Kay knows what he's doing and doesn't slip once in his creation of the character. Neil's reactions to circumstances are spot-on and Kay has captured that bizarre mixture of bravado and fear that characterizes so many teenage males.
What makes this odd choice for a lead character work so well in this book is the contrast Kay is able to construct using a young person from today who takes things like text messaging, computers and digital cameras for granted. To have him be forced to deal with the spirit world, particularly the spirit world that our lovers come from, both increases the tension caused by such circumstances and makes the confusion felt by the character become more than just that of trying to sort out two worlds.
There's a point in the book when one of the spirit characters comments that a 15-year-old would have been considered a man in his time, that he could have been married and had children or even be a war leader for his tribe. In our world the same person spends the majority of his or her time rejecting responsibility while wondering why nobody takes him seriously.
As the story progresses and Ned gets drawn further and further into events, the level of his responsibility increases to the point where he is the only one who is able to accomplish what needs to be done. Being cool becomes far less important as the stakes rise, until they include the fight for the survival of one of his dad's assistants. You learn a lot about yourself and your inner resources when a person's survival is dependent on your abilities.
In spite of Ned and Kate's ages, this is not a book that would only interest young men and women. Ned's character and the story line are developed so well that it should appeal to most people. Remember this is a fantasy story, so suspension of disbelief forms a good part of the requirement for reading it anyway, so no matter what your own beliefs are about "teenage novels" they shouldn't be relevant in these circumstances.
As is usual for a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, the research is impeccable and historic details fascinating and seamlessly woven into the unfolding mystery. That Kay has front-loaded the answers to the character's questions make it all the more interesting. I was too immersed in the story to bother with searching for the historic clues that would solve the riddle, but if you wanted to, you could.
Best of all as far as I'm concerned is Kay's unselfconsciousness when it comes to writing about love and what people can be driven to do by and for it. He displays his characteristic ability in these situations to make what could be sentimental tripe moments of resplendent beauty. Combined with his matter-of-fact attitude towards the spirit world – it exists to be written about, doesn't it? – and obvious love of the subject matter, this makes Ysabel one of his best works yet. It's as if, like his character Ned, Kay has stepped over an invisible line and taken full responsibility for the emotions and feelings of his characters.
He exerts a tighter control than usual on their development so that none of the types who have appeared in the past show up again. By coming back to the world that he lives in, instead of writing about the past, Kay seems to have found a balance for previous extravagances. His work is far better, and more believable for it.