In Guy Gavriel Kay’s “Ysabel,” an ancient story is re-enacted every few decades by reincarnated characters. Time is slippery and can bend a bit to allow this story to continue taking place.
The ancient story feels real and strong because Kay put in his research hours (information which is carefully explained by several history buff characters, a neat way to sidestep the infodump problem…maybe). It feels like this kind of magic and myth could be unfolding in the streets of ancient, still-inhabited cities. Europe, with its unchanging buildings and carefully preserved heritage, feels like the sort of place this could happen in.
What disappointed me was that this one story was the only thing in his invented world which Kay seemed willing to touch upon. There are plenty of nods to gods and other mythological creatures being real–but they are only nods. Mysteries are never solved, promises for explanation are not fulfilled.
Not only that, but the stakes never feel earned. There are ominous hints of great and terrible things to come littered through the first half or so of the book, but in the end nothing that dire happens. There’s risks, but the main characters all come out just fine. The heavy foreshadowing proves melodramatic, the wider world remains entirely shrouded, and the core story itself depends on the personality of a woman with no personality.