Title: The Daughters of Ys
Author: M. T. Anderson
Illustrator: Jo Rioux
Publishing House: First Second
We are greeted by the grieving King Gradlon of Kerne, recalling his late wife: Your mother came from another world. He explains how Lady Malgven, a woman of faerie blood, pushed back the sea on the shores of his kingdom and built him the magnificent ‘city of a hundred spires’, attracting ambassadors and merchants from far beyond: the city of Ys.
She also gave him two daughters, princesses Rozenn and Dahut.
The two girls, virtually abandoned by the devastated king, cope as they can: gentle Rozenn retires to nearby forests and enjoys the quiet company of animals, while shrewd Dahut throws herself into the magic that her mother used to practice. Despite their love for each other, the two sisters grow apart as they grow older. But the price of the magic that built glorious Ys is costly, and soon dark forces call back from the depths of the sea. The Daughters of Ys is a compelling story of magic, love and betrayal, and the dire consequences of greed.
‘For you, I will build walls to push back the sea and will spin you a palace of domes and towers.’
The story is based on an ancient Breton folk tale that I was not familiar with. The city of Ys is believed to have been sunken by the sea, much like the fabled Atlantis. A similar example is that of the mythologised city of Ubar, said to have existed somewhere in the deserts of the Arabian Peninsula and been buried under the sand as God’s punishment for a greedy king — a similar story to Ys. While I love reading modern takes on more famous stories such as Daniel M. Lavery’s The Merry Spinster, a wickedly smart retelling of the Little Mermaid, discovering the rocky shores of Finisterre through this tale was a pleasant surprise.
Anderson’s version diverges from the original tale by giving Dahut a sister, as she is Gradlon’s only child in the original. Rozenn’s shyness is a counterpoint to Dahut and her love for political scheming. She soften the edges of this tragic tale but also makes Dahut herself more complex as a character; despite Rozenn’s status as the heir, it is her younger sister who is in charge of the kingdom’s safety and success. You are a monster, accuses Rozenn. No. What I did was kind, replies Dahut. Always remember that: I was kind.
I particularly enjoyed the appearance of a small detail: the church in which votive ships are displayed as an offering to ‘Our Lady of the Tempest’ to ask for protection for the fishermen going out to sea. This is a real-life tradition found in countless churches on the coast of Brittany and Normandy in France.
This example shows us the dangers provided by the sea on the people living on its shores, as Rozenn quickly discovers when she befriends a local fisherman. The sea, as an antagonising element and an enslaved spirit, is truly a power to be reckoned with throughout the story.
And here I must come to the artwork.
The first thing that drew me to The Daughters of Ys was its cover, a beautiful piece of art depicting the main characters surrounded by the swirling sea. It immediately conveys the novel’s folk theme and introduces us to the two sisters’ personalities. The hardcover underneath the dust jacket is equally beautiful, if more abstract, with rushing waves covering the entire front and back of the book.
I insist so much on the art because it is an important character in the story. Jo Rioux articulates the words written by M. T. Anderson, creating broad shapes filled with the soft lines of coloured pencils. The illustrator says in an interview with First Second that she ‘tried to infuse the sea throughout the book — from the rolling hills of the coast, to Rozenn’s wild hair and Dahut’s flowing robes.’ When Dahut lies on her bed, we find the sea in the curtains billowing with wind and in the covers she tightly hugs. It speaks to the curses and spells she has woven that have a strong hold on her future, like a deal made with the Devil: once it comes, there is no escaping retribution.
I thoroughly enjoyed The Daughters of Ys as a tale set in an immersive world, with dialogue as charming as the characters. A highlight was Rozenn’s conversation with the hermit, a character conflicted by the effect of his actions upon others, which provided a clever reflection on the existence of the miraculous Ys and its horrifying secrets. The darkness in the novel — the secrets that keep a kingdom alive, the blood shed to achieve almost anything — are depicted elegantly, the lyrical illustrations showing terrible pain without being too graphic.
The novel has the ending of a traditional folk tale, of course — which is not an entirely happy one, although the way the characters change is certainly satisfying. I missed the potential for Rozenn to act more in the first part of the book, as she is mostly in a fixed state until she decides to take charge towards the end. We have already witnessed Dahut’s ascent to power in the meantime— a descent in many other ways, unfurling at the climax of the story. Overall, Dahut remains a stronger character; but perhaps it is a given with the way she embraces her fae blood.
The Daughters of Ys is a well-executed story with characters full of charisma and pathos (like any good tragedy) and an original and valuable retelling of the Breton folk tale. Rioux’s illustrations make every page a mesmerising piece of art; buy it and forever keep it on your shelf.