Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay


Ysabel Book CoverA Tale Between Times

Imagine the present time with a mystical mist threading its way through it. And then have two more mystic threads entering the scene. Both from conquering peoples of long ago, with one trying to vanquish the other. Ysabel by Guy Gavriel Kay is such a tale. From the long ago the bones and footprints of history come alive.

Ysabel is a tale between times. It is a tale of a tangled love triangle between those of long ago with ensuing competition and violence. And it is also one of my favourite books, one of those meant to be reread over and over.

I first met Guy when I accidentally picked up his book Tigana. Accidentally because I left the book I was already reading behind in its place! I certainly didn’t regret this as the book proved to be a wonderful read.

Recently I was looking up lists of top fantasy books and found Guy’s name mentioned a few times for other books and this brought Ysabel back into my mind again.

I think what makes this book truly rewarding is that the author loves history and generally his tales have this as a basis and are set in those times. The major difference with Ysabel is that the history is a shadow story in the background but the past protagonists appear in the now along with the modern day ones. In fact this is a really good Urban Fantasy tale, incorporating history and hints of Young Adult fantasy (as the modern protagonist, Ned, is a young lad approaching adulthood).

Guy is a maestro writer and uses the English language masterfully. His words paint pictures in your mind.

A Different Sort of Tale

Saint Sauveur Cathedral

Saint Sauveur Cathedral

Guy Gavriel Kay changed his format when writing Ysabel. No longer are we only travelling the roads and waterways of the past. In Ysabel we are moving along the roads of both now and then. The main team lives in present day Canada but travels the world as Ned’s dad, a photographer, compiles sets of photos for various reasons, in this case, a Coffee Table book of the city of Aix-en-Provence region. The photography commences in Saint Sauveur Cathedral.

As Ned’s mum is away in the north east region of Africa in Sudan working as part of Médecins Sans Frontières Ned has managed to get out of high school two months early so he can accompany his dad.

From the past we have the Romans and the Celts. Two violently warring peoples; the Celts defending their land and the Romans on their way to building their empire. And I really expect that before Celts were others who they had driven west as the list of various ‘tribes’ in that area is quite extensive.

Certainly the Greek antecedents travelled the fringe of the Great Sea aka (also known as) the Mediterranean Sea. They sought trade to increase the wealth of their city states.

These traders established the city that is now known as Marseilles, 30km south of Aix.

Themes of History

As you follow the story you will find that its history follows very closely to what has actually happened in Aix and the surrounding country side. This brings the book to life as the characters seem vividly real.

I expect a few details were modified (a tomb is in the cathedral inside the city walls but this never occurred at this time in history). And a few details are most likely enhanced such as the number slaughtered in massacres.
Catapults in ambush

All the places that are mentioned exist and the battles and other events did happen. History records an epic battle between the Celts and Romans where a huge amount of lives were lost. Ysabel has its own interpretation of  this battle and, as no-one around at the time of the original battle is still alive (unless they are longer lived than Methuselah), who is to say it didn’t happen quite this way.

I am sure the Romans suffered significant losses but the Romans were sneakier so they still managed to win!

But as most of those slain, for the time this story started, were the various tribes of the Celts the number presented in Ysabel might in fact be fairly accurate.

The book can almost be taken as a travelogue for the Aix-en-Provence area. A travelogue with an ancient twist.

For instance the tale commences at the Saint-Sauveur Cathedral (in the present time known as Aix Cathedral). True to history the tale’s cathedral has Roman ties (it is built over a Roman road – in actuality a Roman forum).  Over time many peoples contributed to its architecture until now it is an intriguing medley.

The Celts originally dwelt around Entremont, an Iron Age oppidum that had been Celtic skull for Ysabelwiped out before Ysabel begins.   It is a locality of Celtic lore. Celtic hoards of the ancestor and enemy skulls have been found in the area. Strange things are still believed to occur at Beltaine on May Day. They certainly do in Ysabel. And the world changes.

The epic battle to rule the area took place near Mont Sainte-Victoire. Some historians believe that the Roman Empire exists only because the Celts were defeated here.

Crossroads in time

Now we have this glorious setting, one that the famous Paul Cézanne frequently painted. A setting over imposed by the violent history, in the case of Ysabel, of the massacre of Celts by the Romans in the immediate vicinity of Mont Sainte-Victoire.Mont Sainte-Victoire by Paul Cézanne

History impacts in different ways on different places. Aix has been fought over and overrun many times over the centuries. What a wonderful setting for the tale to take place in. Ysabel flows with this history and wraps over and through it with remarkable ease and skill.

The atmosphere and the emotions, the behaviour of the characters are all stroked and stoked, even those who shouldn’t exist in this time and place.

This is done so well that all of them could be thought to entirely exist in modern times. Except for what the distant past threesome do and how they appear.

To the World of Today

And as it should, with the tale predominantly told in the present, so it ends here. The ending is somewhat unexpected but is totally satisfying.

I recommend this book very highly and I am sure if you decide to enjoy it you too will be very satisfied with the ebb and flow of this little piece of urban historical fantasy.

Ysabel the book can be found at various venues including Booktopia. Grab a copy and curl up in your favourite chair with pet on lap and settle in for a great read. If you are like me, make sure you have a cup of coffee or tea and a very large chocolate bar so you don’t disturb either the pet or the reading.

On the other hand if you have one very handy eReader Ysabel can be Ysabel on Kobo
found as an eBook at Kobo. This way you can read at night and not have to get up and turn the light on and off. Stay warm and cosy in bed and read on.

And by the way be prepared for the pet, in my case Katie the cat, to stand on the eReader and change pages so fast you have to spend time to figure out where you were!

While you are taking a look at this book browse through Guy Gavriel Kay’s other tales. I haven’t yet found any that I would hesitate over reading again.

Finally, if you don’t yet have an eReader take a look at my Why Buy Kobo eReaders post.






  1. I really enjoyed the Fionavar Tapestry Trilogy by Guy Gavriel Kay, so I am right away interested in another book by him. Reading your review though it sounds as though it’s a rather different type of story, but large and sweeping all the same.
    You read Tigana by Kay as well – if you’ve read the Fionavar Tapestry, how do you think the “3” rate against each other?

    • Marlaine, I am responding by depending on my memory as Tigana and the Trilogy are packed away and have been for some time. In fact I might not have Tigana anymore as it was an accidental find (for which I am eternally grateful). When I was hitchhiking around Australia someone had finished and left it for the next person in the Youth Hostel library. l might have done the same thing when I finished with it. So I just bought the Kobo eBook copy for a re-read.

      So from memory Tigana really grabbed me and I finished it rather quickly. At that time I didn’t have much room to carry books so didn’t look Guy up for a few years. Then I found the Trilogy.

      Fortunately by this time the whole three were available. I say fortunately as I remember I read all three one after the other. These were the type of books that I couldn’t put down I had to see the ending and the sooner the better!

      I believe Ysabel easily equates with these two books in power. In the Trilogy Kay starts the tale in Toronto and then delicately gathers the threads of folklore history throughout our world and literature and places them in a cross over world. Tigana has a series of historic threads running through it. (I can’t comment further as it is a long time since I read this.)

      Ysabel, starting in Montreal before the story actually begins, has the threads of earth’s history woven through and the characters of the past are based on a story so grim and powerful they are portrayed as having become folklore.

      So I can say they have similarities but are also very different. I am sure you would love Ysabel.


  2. Hi!
    I am a person who likes to read a lot especially fantasy books. After reading your review about book ”Ysabel” I became interested and very curious about it. I enjoy searching articles where are described the tales so I can decide if I want to read it, so congrats for this article that It aroused my interest.

    • Zoly, thanks for your comment. If you became interested and curious about Ysabel I have accomplished what I set out to do. I will not reveal too much of a story as I believe that ruins a good read.

      But I do like to tempt people into, at least, looking at the book.

      So go on and have a read. I expect you will then try out some of Guy’s other books.


  3. Thank you for a wonderful intro into the pages of Ysabel. I’m intrigued by what you have provided. When I was at college, some years ago now, we studied some of the Roman histories and I have had a fascination ever since – I feel the same about the Celts. The fact that the author moves between two times just adds to the enthrallment and attraction.

    • Rina, I am glad you visited my post and provided a lovely comment. I too was at university ‘some years ago’.

      I especially love the Celtic histories. I was randomly walking through a bookstore years ago and found a book by Morgan Llywelyn, called ‘The Horse Goddess’. It was so good I started following her. She is not a formally educated historian but has obviously researched history well.

      You might note that I try not to reveal too much of the story as I believe that ruins the fun of reading a book,

      Thanks for dropping by and do visit me again.


  4. Hi Helen, your marvelous review of an intriguing subject, caught the eye of this devoted science fiction lover! I love the blending of historical events with modern perspectives as well. This is a very well written review of the book Ysabel.

    I used to love reading time travel books when I was a child and young woman, and now as a mature lady who is a metaphysician, it all makes sense. I really feel time is fluid and may be circular.

    It is easy to tell that you like these subjects as well, and you have persuaded me to investigate Guy and his books as well.

    Bravo on a great post.


    • Pat, I am blushing with your kind words. I love reading these books and I try very hard not to give too much of the tales away. I try to tweak peoples curiosity instead.

      It’s been awhile since I looked up Metaphysics so had to renew my knowledge of that field. Yep time is fluid and it is racing by me very quickly. I can’t keep up.

      Guy’s books generally work around an historical theme, for example the great mosaic works of the past.

      However he does have a ‘parallel word trilogy’ with a ‘cross-over’ theme from here to there. These are terrific books. The series is ‘The Fionavar Tapestry’ and the books are The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road.

      I read somewhere that a couple of characters from the trilogy are also in Ysabel. My copies of them are packed away so I can’t confirm this yet. Once they are unpacked I will re-read them to check this out.

      Thank you for your blush producing comment.


  5. Thank for the review Helen,
    When I started to read through it, i immediately thought of Michael Crichton’s Timeline. That blend of modern day with a period in history. I love this kind of tale.
    I’ll check the book out, thanks!

    • Geoff, I had totally forgotten about Michael Crichton. I have read a number of his books and now feel like finding and re-reading them.

      Another author who writes a good history/science fantasy mix is Deborah Harkness. She has a PHD in the “history of magic and science in Europe”. I really enjoyed her books in the’All Souls’ trilogy (haven’t yet read the third one yet). That series of books I really think you might like.


  6. Very interesting post! I like to read sci-fi stories with a twist. I’m not a fan of reading about violence but if it fits the story and there is more to it I’m in. To me the history angle is interesting and as you mentioned History impacts in different ways in different places: a hero of a nation could be the destroyer of another nation.

    • Dira, you got it. It appears history is really about conflict. Although I like a peaceful existence, history would be pretty boring if nothing really happened. Fortunately after the initial violence and things settle down (until the next round, talent comes to the fore with music, arts, architecture, astounding building works etc. Look around at all the marvellous long lasting things we have. Unfortunately some people seem content to ruin the ‘art’ of their history.

      In Ysabel there is the presence of the ‘art’ with the shadow of conflict wrapped all together. I think that is what appealed to me the most. How history can impact on the future. And that begs the question, ‘Does Ysabel’s impact end here.’

      I welcome you comment and hope you do like the book, when or if you read it.


  7. Helen, I’ve been reading science fiction and fantasy since I was about 11, and have never really quit. This book, Ysabel, sound like something I’d really like to read, mixing as it does time travel, history, and the human passions. Your description reminds me of works by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and Ursula K. LeGuinn. Ysabel is definitely on my reading list now! You have a very interesting site, thanks!

    • Bobby you certainly sound like me with attaching yourself to science fiction and fantasy at an early age. What use is the imagination if you can’t use it.

      I hadn’t heard of Gabriel but I have read all of Ursula’s books (I think)! After saying this I checked Ursula K LeGuinn and found I have some more of her books to look forward to. At this rate I will never get any work done!

      If you like Ysabel as much as I do try some of his other books. His ‘Fionavar Tapestry’; consisting of The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road are pretty great too.

  8. A lot of interesting facts, massive battles between celts and Romans. I still don’t get it, why do people have to fight against each other… The intro to the book was great! Myself not a big lover of death, but battles and where they happened are still interesting things to read about 🙂 Would check the book out for sure.

    • Sander, I am with you on the why fight each other fact. I think it is intolerance and possibly greed. It appears many cultures outgrew themselves (and it is still happening) and needed to conquer to support their culture. And as usual they became so top heavy they collapsed to others doing exactly the same thing.

      What I really liked here was the way the one region was impacted so many times by them. And Guy certainly used this fact to advantage in Ysabel.


  9. Absolutely fabulous. I am a big fan of history and sci-fi myself. Definitely think I’m going to check this out. Thanks for the amazing find.

    • Kenneth, so glad I could introduce you to this book. Guy has done some great books and I hope to get around to rereading them once I unpack them. Generally he picks an era and works on that so as I said this is a bit different for him.

      If you want to explore further try his ‘Fionavar Tapestry’. There are three books; The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire and The Darkest Road. I am sure you would enjoy these too.

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