Two Views: Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay
Reviewed by Graham Sleight and Victoria Hoyle
21 May 2007
Why write fantasy? The question is unanswerable, of course, or at least there are as many answers as there are writers. But one generic answer, I'd suggest, runs like this. People write (and read) fantasy because they have an intensity of feeling about history that's not reflected in the world they see around them. They want to make history more present, but without the literalness inevitably involved in writing straight historical fiction. Fantasy gives them a way to experience what they find interesting in history, very often intensified into some metaphorical form like Middle-Earth. Or, if they want to do this without the leaps involved in creating such a secondary world, they may write a story in which the present and the past interpenetrate in some way. (A thought: is this kind of fiction the fantasy equivalent of hard SF, of, as Greg Benford says, "Playing tennis with the net up"? It certainly requires an adherence to the given in ways that full secondary-world fantasy doesn't.) A couple of canonical examples spring to mind in this tradition: Clive King's Stig of the Dump (1963) and Robert Holdstock's Mythago Wood (1984).
I don't know how well-known the King is outside the UK, but for many British people of my generation, it was a seminal early reading experience. It's the story of a suburban boy who finds a prehistoric cave-child living in a quarry near his house; they become friends and in a climactic sequence, the boy experiences some kind of timeslip and witnesses a prehistoric menhir-raising ritual. Holdstock's book, on the other hand, is a very adult, very Oedipal attempt to describe the Matter of Britain through investigations of an archetype-haunted patch of untouched forest in the heart of England.
The crude way to describe Ysabel would be as a half-way house between the two. The protagonists are teenagers, and the book's approach to the sexual places it at the heart of the story. But at the same time it plays all sorts of avoidance gambits with that material (like John le Carré as Smiley figures out what it is that he doesn't know, or indeed like two teenagers not talking about the obvious subject). The first thing that struck me—a reader who'd not encountered Kay's work before—is the shocking directness of its telling. Every sentence moves the action forward, every action moves the plot forward. This directness and the choice of the protagonists makes Ysabel read like a YA novel, although the penumbra of marketing material around it makes no mention of that as an intention.
The book begins with Ned Marriner, a teenager staying with his father in Provence. The father is a photographer, justifiably famous, taking on a project to shoot some of the area's landmarks. He's surrounded, as such people are, by a swarm of assistants and PAs, and Kay is very good indeed at conveying the paid-for buzz of such a group. Ned meets Kate Wenger, an American exchange student, and they relatively soon encounter the first avatar of the timeslip the book depicts. Going on about the exact nature of that slippage in a review like this would be unnecessarily spoiler-ish, and in any case enough can be said about it in the abstract. It involves events important to the past of that region, is plausibly urgent enough to matter as much as Kay describes, and is as I've said sexual at its root.
Anyone who's writing a book like this—contemporary identification figures encounter archetypal figures/stories from history—has a problem, and it's the problem of registers. You tell your contemporary story in a relatively informal idiom appropriate to it, and you tell your archetypal story in a more high-flown register. How do you get the two to co-habit within the same book without clunking gearshifts and ensuing bathos? Of the examples I mentioned above, Stig of the Dump skirts this problem by being set from a child's-eye point of view; a child's comprehension of the present-day world is a work in progress, and so too is his perception of the prehistoric. The Holdstock, on the other hand, adopts a much more complex solution. The investigators of the eponymous wood (1940s adults) create for themselves a language of science in which they can couch their questions: they speak of an "oak vortex" and "mythopoeic energy." But the further they go into the wood, the bigger it gets, and their language becomes inadequate, falls apart in the face of the thing itself. The story itself forces an achieved simplicity on how it's told.
In Ysabel, Kay has chosen simplicity from the start, in the form of a third-person narrative almost exclusively told from Ned's point of view. The risk he runs, then, is not bathos but underselling the central mystery. A sample:
"Perhaps," the man said, gravely. "You did bring me here with what you said. I used your words as a sign, lacking any other. You named this place, among all the possibilities. I am grateful beyond words. I'd have likely been elsewhere when she arrived, and as the gods are always witnesses, she'd have made me suffer for it."
"She?" Kate said. "You said a man was coming." Another silence. "She will be here. We are where we are. The barriers are down."
"Holy cow," Kate breathed. "Is he...is this guy, like, a druid?"
A sudden, involuntary movement on Ned's other side. "I hope not, or I am lost."
Way too many questions.
Ned asked the first one he thought of. "Why is it night?"
He heard a sound, almost amusement. "Why would you imagine time should follow a known course tonight? I told you not to come." (p. 157)
We're meant, I think, to feel a little twinge of superiority at Kate's "Is this guy, like, a druid?" She and Ned don't yet grasp the enormity of what's going on; we can safely ironise that in the knowledge that they'll see a larger picture by the end of the book. But its eventual revelation has to be rendered into their terms, and Kay's problem is not one of register shifts, as it were, but gearing. The story he has created isn't able to bear the full weight of what it implies. So, with impeccable skill, he ducks a number of its implications. Events of the kind he describes should be utterly shocking and transgressive. But Kay equips almost all of his characters with what might be called excess adaptive capacity: they get the hang of the story and what it requires of them far too fast, and the same is true for its readers. And in the process of ensuring his readers keep pace, Kay winds up with a story too easily—and, in the last chapter, too explicitly—reducible to a number of ideas about history.We come out of Ysabel thoroughly exhilarated but not changed.
As it happens, this passage showcases a number of Kay's other traits as a writer. There's a close (almost too close) attention to what sound is present at any given moment. There's that short sentence followed by short line of dialogue formulation, which he uses rather too often. There's what some may feel is the excessive use of italics. The most noteworthy thing about this passage, though, is that this preliminary bit of fencing with the fantastic comes not far from half-way through the book. There is, to pick a metaphor not totally at random, rather a lot of foreplay to get through first.
And then, as I said earlier, there's the question of how directly Kay wants to depict the mystery at the heart of his book. Perhaps the most revealing book to read Ysabel back to back with would be Elizabeth Hand's Waking the Moon (1994). Its protagonists aren't much older than Kay's—they're university students. Again, the story is one of a fantasied version of history interpenetrating with the contemporary world. But Hand doesn't once blink or look away from what she's depicting. There's at least one scene that causes every male reader I know to wince, and its depiction of raw events is too much to bear at points. This brings its own problems: raw events shake a book apart before long, and Waking the Moon has an odd, broken-backed structure as a result. But Kay's pitfall (if it is a pitfall) is the opposite. There's a sense that the author is too knowing about his characters and events, that they're transparent to him, and will be to us if we just bear with him through the story. A book like this should feel like it's barely in control; with Kay, you sense nothing but control.
But I don't want to be too negative. Ysabel clocks in at just under 400 pages—short for a fantasy these days, and especially so given the extraordinarily generous margins and leading with which it's presented. But it feels much quicker than that to read, and my grumpiness earlier about the longeurs at the start should be tempered by the fact that it only took an evening to get through them. It's a book that goes down without touching the sides. Unlike with Mythago Wood and Waking the Moon, you feel that what it says about history could be extracted from its fictional context without loss. One winds up hoping that Kay's next book will be less professional and hurt us more.
In the interests of full disclosure, and before I begin to wax thoughtful, I should admit that I have a long history with Guy Gavriel Kay. You might go so far as to say that he has been with me since the beginning. The first fantasy novel I ever picked up was The Summer Tree (1984), the opening book in his trilogy, The Fionavar Tapestry: it was written in the year I was born and I read it in the summer of 1996 when I was thirteen. I thought it was a piece of pure and unadulterated genius. Its interwoven themes of myth, history, sacrifice, loss, responsibility, and love broke my newly adolescent mind wide open, and gave me a strong taste for grand narrative. That and a sense of what fantasy, as a genre, could be—what it was capable of being. I have since read Kay's alternate-history novels—Tigana (1990), A Song for Arbonne (1992), The Lions of Al-Rassan (1995), The Sarantine Mosaic (Sailing to Sarantium, 1998; Lord of Emperors, 2000) and The Last Light of the Sun (2004)—with great avidity, excited by the potency of both their style and their substance.
But it was with trepidation that I approached Kay's tenth novel Ysabel, my anticipation mixed with a gripe of uncertainty. First impressions suggest that it is a very different novel to his previous work, a clear departure from the epic alternate-historical mode. Grounded in the geography and history of our own world and set in 2005 in Aix-en-Provence, it has an adolescent protagonist and is peppered with the tics of modern parlance—sneakers, Coca Cola, mobile phones and iPods. Unlike Kay's earlier work, it firmly marginalizes its grand narrative (a love triangle through the ages) in favor of exploring the nascent maturation of a teenage boy. What emerges is a disconcerting hybrid, a mix-up of Romantic bildungsroman and contemporary post-pubescent dramatics that must prove discomforting for an established fan.
At the same time—and especially upon a second reading—it seems to me that Ysabel is Guy Kay down to its bones. It is replete with poetic foreshadowing, heavy with historical resonance and shot through with familiar themes; it muses continually on the power of place and the implications of the past. Slowly it starts to come clear that Ysabel is actually prototypical of Kay's work: that it is a departure only insofar as it marks a culmination of emotional and thematic trends within his oeuvre.
Ned Marriner is fifteen years old and spending a lazy, hazy two months in the south of France while his father Edward, a famous photographer, shoots a coffee-table tome: Images of Provence. He has a strong impression of his own redundancy to the project and of his inactivity in contrast to his companions. His father is intently focused on his photography, as are his team of assistants: Melanie, his super-organized PA, marks up guidebooks and color codes schedules; Greg and Steve, his boyish technical aides, help scope out and set up shots. Ned's mother, meanwhile, is serving a stint with Doctors-Without-Borders in the Darfur region of Sudan. In comparison Ned has a little homework and a running schedule, but nothing important to do and certainly nothing essential. Even when his father tries to involve him, he harbors a teenager's instinctual resentment:
Even when Ned was young his father had asked his opinions whenever Ned was with him on a shoot. When Ned was a kid it had pleased him to be consulted in this way. He felt important, included. More recently it had become irksome, as if he was being babied. (p. 40)
Ysabel's opening line—"Ned wasn't impressed" (p. 7)—captures his adolescent state perfectly. Embarrassed by awe, blasé about beauty—it is the idiosyncratically lovely Saint-Sauveur Cathedral which fails to do the impressing—and uncomfortable in his own skin, he often thinks about how each of his actions and feelings might be judged by his peers at home. Nevertheless, like many teens, he is secretly enthusiastic and somewhat self-aware. Eager to join in the banter of his adult companions, he hungers for the world of purpose from which he feels excluded.
Wandering alone in the dark interior of Saint-Sauveur he meets it head on—first in the shape of Kate Wenger, an American exchange student brimful of unabashed geekiness, and then in the form of a mysterious armed stranger who emerges from the floor of the Cathedral's ancient Baptistry. This man, who wears leather, carries a knife and admits to having killed children, claims to be 800 years old, older even. A soul reincarnated again and again, caught up in a bloody feud through the ages that has caused the deaths of thousands of people in Provence: the Roman bloodbath at Montagne Ste. Victoir; the Albigensian Crusade; the siege at Montsegur.
The man's name (this time at least) is Phelan and meeting him changes Ned's life immeasurably, ripping him out of his apathy and depositing him in the path of a centuries old conflict. A few days later he also meets Phelan's counterpart, his sworn enemy Cadell, and eventually comes face to face with the woman whom they have fought so long and bloodily to win—Ysabel. Ned discovers that his own family's heritage—in the form of his mother's estranged sister and her hulk of a husband—is bound up with Phelan and Cadell's fate and that the Provençal landscape itself is resonant with conflict, with the sharp tang of blood and love. In the end he, Ned Marriner, just a boy on the verge of becoming a man, may be the only person in the world capable of breaking the destructive cycle.
Kay's hallmark themes of sacrifice, loss, and love are implicit in all of this, if differently wrought than usual, and he brings the full force of his poetic style to bear on his archetypal characters: Phelan, Cadell, and, especially, Ysabel. Take, for example, this passage about her:
She is capricious, almost above all else, unpredictable even after more than twenty-five hundred years... Sometimes when he thinks the number, the length of time, twenty-five hundred, it can still catch him in the heart. The weight of it, impossibility. The long hammer of fate.
They never change, the two of them. She always does, in small, telling ways. She must be rediscovered, as a consequence, each and every time. Endlessly different, endlessly loved... His back to the other man and the spirits, looking out from the edge of the plateau, he is entirely unafraid. (p. 225)
They all have their previous manifestations in Kay's fiction, from Fionavar (Jennifer, Arthur, and Lancelot) to The Lions of Al-Rassan (Jehane, Ammar, and Rodrigo) to the Sarantine Mosaic (Alixana, Crispin, and Valerius). The love triangle is native to his work, embedded deep in his imagination, and he has returned to it again and again, like Phelan and Cadell, playing it out with different emphasis and outcomes but always with the same force of meaning. He uses it as a device to express the historical tensions between cultures and characters, and to explore the psychologies of desire and need. As a device it also has implications for exploring the position of woman, apparently placing the onus of sexual and political power in her hands. So, for example, it is Ysabel who names the rules of Phelan and Cadell's contests for her hand and, ultimately, decides whom to favor with her love. Yet, at the same time, she is a passive quantity, forced to wait for either of her suitors to win her, or not. The love triangle also highlights the impact and extremity of intimate emotions, of personal choices, in the patterns of history. In this case, it was Ysabel's long-ago decision to favor a foreign stranger (Phelan) above a man of her own people (Cadell) that sparked off a chain reaction down the generations. It is, literally, a force unto itself.
Ysabel's epigraph, an excerpt from Robert Graves' "To Juan on the Winter Solstice" (1945), clearly has something to say about Kay's penchant for narrative repetition:
There is one story and one story only
That will prove worth your telling,
Whether as learned bard or gifted child;
To it all lines or lesser gauds belong
That startle with their shining
Such common stories as they stray into. (p. ix)
The one story, it seems to say, is all stories—all fictions speak out from the same narrative principles, the same emotional truths. This is an old idea, always popular, and perhaps especially native to fantasy writing with its formulas and its archetypes. It is also, perhaps, a gloss on the repetitive cycles of our own history.
But it strikes me that Ysabel acts to problematize rather than to confirm this position. Certainly it has its "one story," its great, resonant saga but it also has its lesser gaud. After all, Ned Marriner is just a teenage boy, growing up, changing, becoming himself and his development is the strand of the story that Kay chooses to privilege. Like the young protagonist in Chrétien de Troyes' Yvain, or The Knight of the Lion, Ned is between worlds—a boy; a man?—uncertain and as yet unformed, who, through his contact with the wildness of Provence, comes to terms with his selfhood. Experiences like Ned's are typical of medieval Romance and of bildungsroman, those quintessential stories of maturation. Fantasy readers are familiar with them too—the meteoric transformation of stable-boy into magician/ruler by way of magic or war is the obvious cliché. And Kay is clever to co-opt his personal ur-story as the prism through which to explore this alchemy of adolescence. He effectively uses the depth of associations in Ysabel—the history, the landscape, his own previous work—to renew a theme essential to the fantasy genre.
Thinking on this it strikes me that the Graves quote actively seeks to confuse the natures of the "one story" and the "common stories." In the final line it intimates that the "lesser gaud" is "startling" in its shining, that it is the vital narrative, the litmus by which the "one story" is measured. Implicitly, when first impressions give way to deeper understanding, it is Ned's ordinariness that lights the thematic way in Ysabel.
Ultimately, and without doubt, the innovation of the novel will throw some Kay fans off balance; it seems bound to confuse and befuddle. But second thoughts should right them again—Ysabel is a far more interesting and rewarding novel given the benefit of time and contemplation. I wasn’t sure myself at first, but now I consider it to be a strangely wonderful piece of work.
Finally, we would do well to meditate on Kay's chosen "endigraph": "Never again will a single story be told / as if it were the only one." (p. 417) It might signify a number of things. Perhaps, that Ysabel heralds a change in Kay's approach to storytelling. Or that it signals that he is done, forever and always, with his archetypal characters and themes. Or that it represents a celebration of the endless and multiple potentialities of certain narratives, whether new or old, uniquely grand or universally common. I admit that I have a fondness for the latter interpretation.