Tigana – by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana, in my experience, has always been surrounded by a significant amount of hype, since I kept on seeing it recommended as The Ultimate Example of high quality, well written fantasy. Which intrigued me, but also set some fairly high expectations, not so easy to live up to. After actually reading the book, here’s my take on it.

Title: Tigana

Author: Guy Gavriel Kay

Publisher: Viking

Publication Date: 5 July 1990

Genre: Fantasy

Pages: 676

Standalone or Series: Standalone

Synopsis: The Peninsula of the Palm, despite sharing a common culture, isn’t a unified nation, instead being divided into many provinces and under the control of different tyrants. One of these provinces, Tigana, proved especially hard to conquer, resulting in the death in battle of tyrant Brandin’s beloved son. Bereaved by his loss, not only Brandin attacked Tigana more savagely than any other part of the Palm, he also cast a curse to remove its history and its very name from collective memory. Only those born in Tigana before the invasion can still remember it how it was, and not as an insignificant piece of land with no identiy or pride. Now a group of rebels, under the lead of prince Alessan, wants to overthrow Brandin and to break the curse; simply removing him, however, would make Tigana an easy prey for the even more detestable tyrant Alberico, therefore the rebels must find a way to defeat both enemies at once.

Analysis: The novel is written in third person, following multiple points of view that coalesce around two main narratives, one focused on the rebels and the other on Brandin’s court. The prose is rich and poetic, often indulging in descriptions that could be seen as overwritten by those who love a faster pace, but that do paint a fascinating world in very vivid colours; as a result Tigana comes across not just as a fictional plot device, but as a real land with a history and a soul worth protecting, thus making it easy to care for the main characters’ endeavour.

The story is set in a secondary world, as made apparent by the two moons in the sky; the setting, however, is clearly based on Mediaval Europe, with the Palm being inspired more specifically to Italian history.

The plot, at a first glance, could seem almost cliché, being all about a group of heros fighting against against evil tyrants – except, nothing is as simple as it might look. While the storytelling does make us more inclined to cheer for Alessan and his mates, in fact, good and evil aren’t clear cut at all, and all characters are way more complex than the flags that they fight for. The main characters have legitimate reasons to reclaim their land and its heritage, but the means they adopt aren’t necessarily heroic; Alessan, for one, won’t stop celebrating the importance of (national) freedom, but this doesn’t stop him from enslaving others if it helps his cause; Brandin, on the other hand, is despicable for his erasure of an entire culture, but otherwise doesn’t seem to be a worse monarch than anyone else (unlike Alberico, who is unquestionably bad news). Tigana celebrates the importance of memory and cultural identity, however it also makes us question whether national pride is really more important than individual happiness when the two are at odds; characters have different views on the matter and the different facets of such conflict are not dismissed.

The book thus diverts from the black-and-white morality of traditional fantasy, but at the same time it doesn’t go the opposite route by making everyone despicable and all conflict ultimately pointless; instead, it shows characters with both noble feelings and terrible shortcomings, and stakes that matter even though we might question their price.

While I generally appreciated the way the author handled nuance and complexity, I couldn’t help but notice how other themes were deal with much less gracefully, in a way that in 1990 might have been shrugged off as irrelevant or traditional of the genre, but that nowadays feels awkward and outdated. For instance, female characters are always identified as beautiful and sexy first and foremost, and while they are also provided with some personality, their role still revolves around their sexuality and their appeal for their male companions; Dianora, the main point of view of the storyline set at Branduin’s court, gets a lot of focus and is indeed an interesting and fleshed out character, however her story ultimately revolves around her falling in love with the man she had planned to kill; someone like Alais, on the other hand, mainly exists as a consolation prize for author-avatar Devin, after Catriana is randomly paired off with Alessan. Talking about which: Alessan falls in love with her as he sees her jumping from a tower, and while I do see it was meant to be a poetic couterpoint to Dianora’s recent Ring Dive, it’s still a very puzzling scene and a poor example of character development when the two had previously displayed very little chemistry otherwise.

There are also two homosexual characters – and they only stay on the scene long enough to get killed horribily. It’s not even a spoiler since they do last that little. Now, I do not expect all fiction to have great LGBTQ+ representation, but if you decide to add some queer character, it’d be nice if they lasted more than a cat on a highway, instead of falling for the obnoxious habit to promptly burying all gays.

The author also love to add some spicy sex scenes, which is fine in most cases, especially if they are supposed to have hidden layers of meaning instead of just being there for titillation – however in some case the logistics are so confusing to make me wonder if the author knew what he was talking about, because it’s not really easy to figure out how two people managed to have supposedly good sex while hiding in a small closet and remaining perfectly silent, or how this was a perfectly reasonable move to distract someone from eavesdropping.

Conclusions & Recommendations: I can see why people love this book, and I did enjoy it for most, not only becuase the prose is generally gorgeous, but because it departs from some traditional tropes of fantasy in an intelligent and nuanced way; nevertheless I can’t unsee how some other aspects have not aged well; it did not completely ruin the novel for me, but it did detract from my enjoyment. I would still recommend it to all fantasy lovers as long as they can put up with some outdated tropes.

Content Warning: Death – Violence – Sexual content – Incest – Suicidal thoughts – Slavery

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