Departing from his common elves-and-goblins universes, Guy Gavriel Kay's Ysabel is an urban fantasy novel in the style of Neil Gaiman, complete with contemporary setting. Combining Roman and Celtic history, photography and a centuries-old love, Ysabel tells the story of Ned Marriner, a young French boy who moves to America and stumbles upon a hidden, magical world within an old cathedral.
Writing a coming-of-age story has become a right of passage for modern fantasy writers, and Ysabel stood the chance of being a blase affair if it was done with any less skill. Kay pulls it off like the genre vet he is, with powerful, mesmerizing language and enough shocks, twists and turns to keep even the most scrutinizing readers entertained.
As a story about a boy who grows up, falls in love and fights the denizens of Celtic myth, Ysabel succeeds. Ned is relatable, responds to the outrageous things around him in a reasonable way and matures from a young teenager to a man through the story. Kay uses humour to great effect--like Ned wondering if it's appropriate to play Houses of the Holy in a Church--to flesh out the character and establish his humanity.
If the story has a flaw, it's the anti-climactic ending. After such a strong run-up, it's hard not to feel cheated when Ysabel ends in a whimper instead of a roar. Not that subtlety is a bad thing, but when so many threads are left hanging, the ending just feels incomplete. Written at least partly as a love letter to Provence (a former province of southern France), at times, Kay seems like he's more concerned with the historical aspects of the story than the exciting ones and it shows in the ending. Ysabel is at it's best when it strikes a balance between the fictional and the non-fictional, and it holds it well enough for most of the read. Though the end falters slightly, Ysabel's post-modern blend of history and fantasy is ultimately a triumph.