Thoughts on ‘Tigana’

 “Memory was talisman and ward for him, gateway and hearth. It was pride and love, shelter from loss: for if something could remembered, it was not wholly lost. Not dead and gone forever.”
                —Tigana, Ch. 5

One of the reasons I read fantasy is the hope that underneath the magic of the fictional world there will be something to take with me into the real one. Fantasy is far more than escapism; it provides an opportunity to see the real world through another lense. Certain ideas and facts about human nature can be thrown to the forefront by showing that even in a magical world there are some things that simply do not change.Because I read fantasy with this in mind, I had high hopes for Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana.

The premise of this novel showed promise. In a land that is very obviously based off Italy, two conquerors have taken their territories in the Peninsula of the Palm. And one of them, Brandin of Ygrath, made the mistake of sending his son into a battles to take the Palm. The people of the province of Tigana slaughtered his army and killed Brandin’s son. In return, Brandin crushed the province- and then wiped its history, culture, and name from the memory of every other inhabitant of the Palm. Only those born in Tigana could remember their history and hear the name of their birthplace when it was spoken. The book’s main events begin after this has taken place, and traces the tales of various Tiganese people, all trying in some way to regain their heritage.

There’s a lot to like in this situation. It brings up notions of identity and history that are almost never touched upon by more standardized tales. It gives the opportunity to showcase this world’s culture. And when it comes to world-building and establishing the various cultures and mindsets of the provinces, Tigana does not disappoint.

Unfortunately the execution of the story itself left me unsatisfied.

I’m going to start with what I had trouble dealing with, as this novel has a fairly even mix of good and bad qualities and I’d rather end on a positive note for a story that did keep me hooked for over six hundred pages.  So… time for a list, I think! Or huge paragraphs chock-full of spoilers. Onwards!

The Bad:

  • Alessan’s chessmastering the two Peninsula tyrants into a bloody battle for the sake of restoring the memory of his country.

I wouldn’t mind this as much as I did if I didn’t get the impression from the narrative that I was supposed to be rooting for him throughout the story. Every character in the series adores Alessan, no one questions his judgment and those who do are usually discredited or change to his side in the end. I’ll cut Kay some slack since Alessan wasn’t shown as perfect, but the prince toes a fine line between charisma and impossible perfection more than once over the course of Tigana. Seeing Alessan cause a high-casualty war for the sake of restoring the name and history of his homeland is a little disturbing to me, all the more so when he receives little more than token moral opposition and somewhat improbable help, i.e. someone essentially putting their entire kingdom at risk for no reason other than helping him.

I do understand that Alessan, as exiled Prince of Tigana, felt compelled to save his country and its history, and he had some potential to be intriguing as he strove to restore that history. However we never really get to see his inner turmoil and the sense of loss he must have felt as an exiled prince who had no country or lineage to claim. Some characters said that he felt sorrow for the destruction he caused, but I never saw evidence of any such sorrow on his part. I think a good many of my issues with him would have been resolved had Kay taken us more inside his head over the course of the narrative. I still might have disagreed with the decisions Alessan came to, but knowing why he came to those decisions would have made me less annoyed with him. As it was, I felt like I was supposed to love him, but wasn’t given enough reason to do so.

  • The encounter with the Others and the Night Walkers was strange and I don’t think it was adequately answered or explained.

I will say that I found the idea of an otherworldly war fought for consequence that would shake both the real world and the other one intriguing. But it didn’t really seem to have a place in the main plot of Tigana. Sometimes this kind of side journey can be a good way to show depth in the setting. But the presence of magic strong enough to wipe away an entire province’s history and name from the memories of everyone not born in that place is evidence enough of mystery in this world. The section with the Night Walkers didn’t seem to have much purpose other than to give Baerd (a rather extraneous character to begin with) a love interest. It’s possible there were indications that this battle was exacerbated by the sorcery cast by Brandin of Ygrath, but I couldn’t find any hard evidence that that was the case.

I want to qualify this by saying that I think the concept would have made fantastic fodder for a separate book, one set in the same world. But since Tigana seems very much a standalone, I don’t know why this section was included in this book. It took up quite a bit of time for very little relation to the overall plot. Though if I’ve missed some really obvious connection between the Night Walkers and the plot other than their magicians helping at the final battle, please tell me.

  • Devin’s sexual encounter with Alienor made absolutely no sense at all. Surely there was a way to get his character to develop other than through a bondage sequence. It was all kinds of unnecessary (though in terms of writing, it was still miles above GRRM’s clunkers in that department).
  • Dianora’s suicide.

This smacked of Kay wanting some kind of deep downer ending. However this decision made absolutely no sense for her, given how she was presented throughout the rest of the novel.

To give context to my ire over this: Dianora was the daughter of a Tiganese sculptor who spent years arranging her life so she could have the opportunity to kill Brandin of Ygrath, who had killed her father in the battle over her home province. She was determined to have vengeance for him and for everyone else who had died in that war, as well as for Tigana losing its history entirely. Over the course of the years, she makes her way into Brandin’s harem, bent on killing him. But as she waits for a safe opportunity- Brandin is, after all, a skilled sorcerer- she comes to realize that there is more to the King than the horrible atrocities he committed to her country. Eventually she comes to respect and even love him. Her affection for Brandin reeks of Stockholm Syndrome (though it should be noted she came to him, rather than his capturing her), but what makes it bearable is that Dianora is aware of how this is affecting her. She struggles to determine the right course of action, now that she can no longer despise Brandin or bring herself to kill him. Several times over the course of the novel she tries to do the right thing, ascertain what the best option is in her difficult situation, and she never once complains or tries to place the blame for her predicament on anyone other than herself. She’s one of the strongest and most compelling characters in the novel.

Which is why her suicide made no sense to me- not to mention it suggested that she couldn’t live without the man she loved. I found this annoying rather than romantic, especially in Dianora’s case. The Dianora I had spent hours reading about would not have killed herself gratuitously after the revelations of the final battle. She would have been heartbroken. She might have cut herself off from everyone who had known her, or she might have faced them proudly without any attempt to defend herself or the actions she had taken. But I don’t think she would ever have drowned herself. (Expect a fanfiction sometime soon in which I alter this ending.)

The Good:

  • As I think I made clear in the opening paragraphs, the premise of Tigana is one of the most unique ideas I’ve come across for a fantasy novel.

Kay noted in his afterward that one of the first things conquerors of a nation do is rename various cities and provinces, and that there’s a very specific reason for doing so. It robs the conquered of their identity and strips them of their sense of self against the conquerors. Seeing this and all its ramifications play out in a fantasy novel was refreshingly different. It gives a deeper meaning to the journey, making it deeply personal and throwing in a whole new set of moral questions about the identity and self-worth that come with a common lineage. I loved seeing what the lost province of Tigana meant to the characters, and how their quest to bring back their nation affected those around them. All throughout the novel the importance of memory and recalling is explored and interwoven throughout the story, with many flashbacks not being marked as such. By blurring the line between past and present at various points in his narrative, Kay did a superb job illustrating just how much impact history has on the present and how losing the past can mean terrible things for the future.

  • The world itself is spectacular.

Each province was unique, but Kay didn’t neglect the similarities that would come from the lands having such proximity to each other. There were casual drops of trade with various provinces and the different goods they export, as well as the rivalries between different provinces about who had the better culture. Kay kept his focus narrow in the beginning, focusing narrowly on a small khav-room (essentially a coffee shop) in Astibar, and gradually broadened it to the rest of the town, from there to the surrounding countryside, and from there to almost the entire peninsula. He has a similar trick when introducing his characters, and by using this gradual method of broadening the world, he makes it that much more tangible and easier to grasp.

Kay also uses religion and music in establishing the culture of this world, which seems to emphasize all things passionate and beautiful, all with fate and a person’s path residing at the heart of it. I found myself curious about the theological underpinnings of the Triad, especially with references to the portals of Morian and the halls that come after death. The Lament of Adaon was intriguing in its mythology. The world captured in this novel draws the reader in because of its sheer complexity, and it feels as though there’s much more to the world of Tigana than just what we see in this particular story.

  • Devin, Dianora, and Brandin are great characters with real personalities and very compelling stories.

Devin is an interesting case because I found him immensely irritating in the beginning and spent most of the first half of the story wanting to smack him upside the head. He was immature and pretentious about so many things, from his singing to his lust, that I honestly wanted some kind of anvil- either literal or metaphorical- to drop. Nothing quite so abrupt occurred until he found that he was from Tigana; then he has a course of gradual awakenings over the course of the novel. This is much more believable and realistic for someone as young and naïve as he was. As he learns that he was born in the lost province of Tigana, which had a history he never knew, he grows gradually less selfish. He begins to think more about how the world around him is affected, he wrestles with the moral implications of what it is he has to do, and he’s smart enough to recognize that some of his heroes might be tarnished. While I still find him frustrating, he’s a very believable and realistic character, and by the end of the novel there’s definite hope that he turns out to be an upstanding citizen.

Dianora.
I think, as anyone can see from my gripe about her suicide, that she’s one of the most fascinating characters the novel had to offer. She set off to seek revenge, fully convinced that it was the only thing she could do, and by the time she grows up has learned that the world is not so simple as she once assumed it would be. But she doesn’t collapse, lose her resolution, or give up on her strength. She continues day after day, fighting to discover what it is she should do now that she cannot bring herself to pursue her original revenge. Her entire life was sorrowful, but she seemed fully aware that all of her choices had led her to her position. For that clear thinking alone, I applauded her, and I grew even more interested as I saw just how caught she was between a rock and a hard place. Not to mention all her interactions with Brandin were fascinating in how she struggled to navigate her feelings for him and the the horrors the King of Ygrath had committed.

Brandin himself is easily one of the best antagonists I’ve read, largely because he’s human and has a human conscience and heart- but has some of the most evil deeds in the novel to his credit, and he does not regret them. Kay shows that this king, whom everyone from Tigana hates with good cause, is not just a monster. At the same time, however, he does not shy away from showing that Brandin has done horrible things, nor does he ever suggest that the King should be absolved from punishment merely because he is capable of love and intelligence.

  • The writing itself is good- the prose is very atmospheric and gives a real sense of setting and place.

I will still gripe about gratuitous sex scenes, but as I said before, Kay’s nowhere near as annoying as Martin in this respect. He actually can write some very beautiful prose when he chooses, and his depiction of quiet friendship is a joy. When it comes to action and suspense, he’s surprisingly capable, throwing in some very tense scenes where it’s quite uncertain who will live or die or what the outcome of various political machinations will be. I don’t know that I’d call his storytelling masterful, but Kay very definitely knows how to write good sentences.

So in this end, this book is a toss-up; I enjoyed it enough to read all 600+ pages of it and I plan on reading another of Kay’s novels as soon as I finish Good Omens. That said, I won’t unconditionally recommend it. The “Mature Content” warning is in full effect for Tigana, and some of the characters leave a bit to be desired in terms of their development. If you find it’s not to your taste, you’ll be able to survive perfectly well not having read it. But if you’re looking for a unique world with well-defined culture and intriguing politics, some extremely compelling characters, and writing well above the standard of most fantasy, than you probably will enjoy Tigana.

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