Ysabel, by Guy Gavriel Kay
One can tell that this book was written towards the beginning of the author’s career. For one, the author sets his story in the present-day. For another, he uses actual historical peoples and hasn’t fully integrated this novel into his fictional universe. But in reading this book one can definitely see the author’s fondness for exploring the boundary between life and death and also his fondness for heathen religion. There is plenty of creepiness to be found here as a young man comes of age in a fascinating and complicated way. And although I do not consider myself a fan of the themes of reincarnation and of heathen religion that are found here, the author does provide some thoughtful examination of the tension between mysticism and scientism. If the author does not appear to have a grasp of genuine Christianity (something I have noted), he certainly has an interest in exploring religion in his novels, and that is something to appreciate. This book manages to keep interest to the end and has a compelling set of characters at its center and lots of complex family drama, all of which makes for fine reading. As an early effort, this book shows promise and points to where the author would go from there.
At its heart, this book of about 400 pages is about a complex love triangle in the midst of other complex personal and cultural matters. A young man named Ned Marriner is with his father in Provence, and finds a mysterious figure from the afterlife while visiting a cathedral in Aix-la-Provence with a geeky but attractive exchange student named Kate. The two of them along with his family and his father’s co-workers (including his father’s personal assistant Melanie) get wrapped up on Beltraine into a complicated challenge between a Celt and a stranger that apparently occurs every 25 years. A mystical boar, a murderous Druid, Ned’s doctor’s without borders mother and witchy aunt and athlete uncle all join in as they attempt to rescue Melanie from spirit possession and deal with the complexities of an ancient duel between two men who represent two hostile pagan cultures. And in doing so the people involved find out more about themselves and are led to think about the weight of history as well as the porous boundary between life and death even as they seek to save a friend and figure out their own identities and powers, all of which leads to a dramatic and surprising conclusion that I will not spoil.
As is often the case in Kay’s writing, this particular novel encourages the reader to think about the complex competition between Celtic and Mediterranean religion. It must be emphasized that the author has no apparent conception or understanding of Christianity apart from the heathen elements that are a part of mainstream Christianity–something other novels deal with even more than this one. That said, the author is interested in the competition between Greco-Roman and Celtic religion, and appears not to be under any illusions about Celtic religion not having any human sacrifices, something that irritated a previous reader of this novel from our local library system who penciled in that it was not true that Celts offered human sacrifices, contrary to what the author had stated. This novel dwells heavily on the ghosts of the past and on the futility of trying to wipe out the past and those are lessons that contemporary readers could stand to pay more attention to when we look at the way that some people, especially on the left, wish to wipe out the past by destroying historical memory and the teaching of historical events in favor of contemporary identity politics. This book is at least a subtle rebuke to such ignorance.