Growing up as a fantasy fan in Canada, Guy Gavriel Kay's Fionavar Tapestry (Summer Tree, Wandering Fire, and Darkest Road) was almost required reading. Fortunately, it's also one of my all-time favorite fantasy sagas, so the requirement was more of an invitation. If you've never given it a read, I urge you to go out and grab yourself a copy as soon as possible.
Anyway, I drifted away from Kay for a while, and then made the mistake of drifting back with Sailing to Sarantium. Not that there's anything wrong with that book - it's actually quite good - but it was just too far removed from the 'fantasy' element I loved in his earlier work. Ysabel is actually an older book that I missed, but it's definitely brought me back into the fold and prepared me for a summer read of Under Heaven (the paperback of which is sitting atop my desk as we speak).
On the surface, Ysabel is a contemporary fantasy about a Canadian teenager whose stay in the French countryside results in him being mixed up with a love story that crosses worlds, cultures, and generations. The fantasy element is very subdued for the first half of the novel, but that air of mystery, that sense of doubt as to what is 'real' and what it all means, is part of its charm.
Kay has always excelled at creating wonderful characters, and this may be his best effort yet. They literally leap off the page, grab your hand, and pull you along for the ride. They're so real, so human, that you're sure you've met (and liked) someone just like each of them in the past. More importantly, there's such a tangible emotional connection established that you physically feel their fear and their anticipation.
The second half of the novel firmly embraces it's fantastic roots, and does so in a fashion that I think satisfies the most ardent fantasy fan, while also accommodating the more literary reader who might not otherwise be open to the crossing of worlds. The mythology created here is beautiful, and the fact that it so naturally meshes with the Celtic/Roman history of the area creates delightful opportunities to explore that history.
It is also in this second half of the novel that the connection to the Fionavar Tapestry becomes so immediately apparent. That connection is, I admit, part of why I finally decided to return to Kay's world with Ysabel, and I'm delighted to say that it's the perfect compliment to his fantasy classic. Not having read the trilogy doesn't detract from the story at all, but familiarity with that story adds a wonderful sense of nostalgia to the tale.
Like I said, on the surface this is a contemporary fantasy, but at it's heart it's a mythological romance. I won't go into too much detail, for fear of spoiling the slow unveiling of the story, but the entire novel revolves around a centuries old romantic triangle upon which a civilization once turned. It's a powerful tale of mythological cycles, and the self-awareness of the lovers inside those cycles brings a bittersweet, almost solemn, note of sincerity to the tale.
The writing here is, like Kay's best work, is as fine as it is easy. The language is gorgeous, and the narrative is so perfect, you can close your eyes and feel Kay sitting next to you on a warm summer's night, telling you the tale over a glass of fine wine. I loved it, and I think the appeal is so universal that it's not just a treat for existing fans, but a great entry into his world.