the Little Red Reviewer

Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Posted on: January 15, 2011

 Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay

 written in: 2007

 Where I got it: purchased new

Why I read it: I’ve read some other Kay titles, and really liked them, and this is part of my “read what I’ve got” new years resolution/challenge.

Fifteen year old Ned Marriner is stuck in France with his famous photographer father, who is shooting scenic photographs for a new coffee table book. Living in a villa, beautiful scenery, great food, pretty girls, maybe skipping 2 months of 10th grade isn’t that bad. Sure, his dad’s assistants Melanie, Steve, and Greg, keep a close eye on him, but they also let him have wine.

Trying to stay out of trouble during  a photo shoot, Ned wanders into an empty church, where he sees the carving, meets the girl, and meets the man.  And suddenly, Ned can count what’s left of his childhood in hours.

The girl, is Kate, an American exchange student. Nerdy, sassy, and thrilled to find someone who speaks English, Kate takes an immediate liking to Ned. The man, doesn’t know what his name is, yet.   On the night of Betlane, when times and worlds are able to intermingle,  Ned, Kate, and Melanie get involved in a story that has never been written down, but has been told forever. A story about a woman who had to choose between two men, and how it did, and can, and still could tear everything apart.

When Melanie gets pulled in too deep, Ned feels responsible for rescuing her.  But as the two other men involved keep saying, it matters more if you love her.  Ned most certainly does not love Melanie (she’s 10 year older than him, and works for his dad!!),  he does care about her safety, and thinks he might love the woman she’s become.  The nameless strangers from the story keep asking Ned “Who are you??” and Ned has no idea either.  He’s able to see things that aren’t there, feel when certain people are near. His mother doesn’t believe in any of this mumbo jumbo, and hasn’t spoken to her sister in nearly 25 years because of it.

Brimming with mythos, and magic, and history and a love that will last forever, Ysabel mostly reads the way I would expect a Guy Gavriel Kay novel to read.  The prose is beautiful and poetic, the characters fully developed and the landscapes breathtaking.  When it comes to telling a compelling tale,  Kay knows how it is done.

All that said, Ysabel is not a perfect novel.  The middle drags, big time.  I would have liked more information about the “big mystery” earlier in the story, I got sick of people responding to what felt like every question with “I don’t know”. There’s a little bit of deus ex machina at the fairly predictable end.  It should be said that Ysabel is an unofficial 4th book in Kay’s award winning Fionavar trilogy. . . . and I haven’t read those books.  I bet if I had, I wouldn’t have had so many moments of feeling lost, or like things were happening to  fast, or sometimes too slow. 

Although our protagonist is a young adult, don’t instanly tag Ysabel as young adult fiction. It may be subtle and literary, but there’s also plenty of attempted murder and human sacrifice.

Bottom line, Ysabel is decent, but not Kay’s best, not by a long shot.  Once I got into it, I enjoyed reading it, but I doubt I’ll go back for a re-read.  I know Kay is capable of so much better, which made this title even more of a disapointment.

Did you notice?  I started putting at the top of the review when the book was written and where I got it. I’ve been seeing other bloggers do that, and it looks kinda cool.


6 Responses to "Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay"

I read the Fionavar tapestry and even though I liked it (it was a bit morbid at some point), I can’t help but feel it’s not as good as Lions of Al-Rassan (I hope that’s the original title as I read it in Croatian, long time ago) as well as Tigana which was his first novel I read and fell in love with.


Hmm, never heard of the author and from your review, it sounds extremely complicated. I don’t like to think that much. I like to escape and enjoy not untangle a knot when I read. While I don’t know if I’d have ever even seen this novel as I read mostly YA, I’m glad you reviewed it. Your review is extremely good and gives us an idea of why we should or shouldn’t read it based on our preferences. Good job.



Ines – Lions of Al Rassan (yup, you got the title perfect!) is my favorite Kay, and I think I keep comparing everything he’s ever written to that. Not very fair of me, is it?

Heather – Kay is certainly into the subtleties, and making his readers think. if you’re interested, you might want to start with his Tigana, or Lions of Al Rassan.


I found that I enjoyed YSABEL more when I stopped thinking of it as a GGK novel and started considering it as just a novel, full stop. I definitely agree it’s not his best work, but I find myself oddly eager to reread it this year.


Hmm, it’s related to Fionavar? Really? I read the first Fionavar novel ages ago and wow, let’s just say that I much prefer the rest of Kay’s work.


I haven’t read fionavar, but according to Amazon & Wikipedia, there is some character crossover. I’ve heard Fionavar isn’t Kay’s best work, but isn’t that series that he won like a gazillion awards for?


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some of the books reviewed here were free ARCs supplied by publishers/authors/other groups. Some of the books here I got from the library. the rest I *gasp!* actually paid for. I'll do my best to let you know what's what.
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