Review: Tigana

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay


Well, this is it—the last update for Memory’s Tigana Read-Along. I’ve really enjoyed slowing down and looking at the text semi-academically; it’s helped me get more out of the text than, perhaps, I would have on my own, considering my last experience with Kay, The Summer Tree. (I enjoyed it, but I could definitely tell Kay is a devotee of Tolkien.) I was always going to give Kay another shot, and I’m quite glad I ultimately did with Tigana; I’ll be definitely be reading more. (But maybe just not The Fionavar Tapestry.)

Tigana is set in the Palm, a fantasy peninsula based on Renaissance Italy. The nine squabbling provinces have been conquered by two invading tyrants—Alberico of Barbadior controls the eastern Palm, while Brandin of Ygrath controls the western Palm. In battle, Lower Corte, one of the provinces under Brandin’s rule, killed Brandin’s beloved son. In retribution, Brandin has utterly crushed Lower Corte. When Devin d’Asoli, a young singer, meets the new harpist in his company, he learns just how thoroughly. Lower Corte was once a shining beacon of culture and honor that went by another name, a name that Brandin, a sorcerer, has erased from the world. Upon discovering that he himself is from this province, Devin joins a delicately planned rebellion as the chess pieces finally begin to move—all in the name of Tigana.

In synopsis, Tigana may sound like a traditional fantasy novel—a Young Farmhand discovers his Heritage and sets out on a Quest. But, while Devin is certainly the protagonist that the audience is meant to identify with, the focus is on a small band of rebels, headed by Alessan, the Prince of Tigana. (I was pleased to note that Kay is comfortable enough in Tigana to only mildly reference Elessar with Alessan’s name and otherwise come into his own apart from Tolkien.) The third-person limited narration limits itself to the rebels, Dianora (a Tiganese activist as well as the jewel of Brandin’s harem), and Alberico. While the narration often fudges by jumping quickly into another character before continuing with the one it started out with, it gives a whole, realistic picture of this conflict, which was born the day the name Tigana was wiped from this earth. And it’s a complex conflict—the rebels don’t agree with each other about the best course of action, some of them do fool-hardy things for the cause without consulting each other, and Alessan, even on the eve of the climactic battle (oh, come on, you have to have one of those), wonders if what he’s doing is right. I need hardly tell you that Dianora, a woman who hates Brandin for what he’s done to her people and who also loves him desperately, is a conflicted woman indeed.

Each character is a well-developed human being with their own reasons for being involved in the conflict—Erlein the wizard is forced into it, Catriana is making up for the sins of her father, Devin does it for the lost memory of his mother, and Rovigo does it because it’s the right thing to do. I never felt like any of these characters were simply going through the motions; even Brandin and Alberico are humanized to a degree, although Alberico is certainly a greedy man in the wrong. I do have to say that the end of Dianora’s story let me see right through the magic trick briefly; I felt cheated by what happened, after all the time we spent with her. I thought it might improve upon rumination, but it hasn’t. Save this misstep at the end, Kay has done a magnificent job of creating living, breathing, and wholly believable human beings fighting for what they believe in. Still, Dianora deserved better.

Tigana is long—hence why Memory decided it was ripe for a Read-Along—but it doesn’t drag. Between Dianora’s story and the rebels’ stories, there’s a lot of ground to cover, and Kay gives it the time it deserves and not a moment longer. While the narration fudging on whose limited third-person perspective we were supposed to be following occasionally made me frown, it’s otherwise smooth. The only time the narration jumps around is during the climactic battle scene, when it adds to the tension instead of disorienting the reader. In fact, Kay plays with tension wonderfully here, especially with Dianora—I had to flip ahead to find out what happens, although I tried to stop myself. The Summer Tree was enjoyable, but Tigana is stunning.

Bottom line: Tigana is a complex portrait of a conflict, exploring the identities and motivations of all its wholly believable characters. While the narration sometimes forgets who it’s supposed to be following and Dianora, the most interesting character of the lot, gets ripped off by the ending, it’s well worth reading.

I rented this book from the public library.

9 thoughts on “Review: Tigana

  1. I’ve been on a bit of a fantasy bender the last two weeks but I’ll need to add this to the list. I have a few other Guy Gavriel Kay’s books on the TBR but this one looks the most promising to me.

  2. Agreed, agreed. I felt the same about the ending, the first time I read it, but on re-reading, I think Kay’s going for tragedy. So many of the characters are ambiguous – the good guys are questionable, and the bad guys have some decent justifications.
    Some of his other books provide happier endings for more of the characters 🙂
    This is not Tolkien revisited, at all. Kay is one of those authors where the first book is not how you should judge the rest of his writing. He changes things up drastically from one book to the next.

  3. Kay helped Christopher Tolkien edit ‘The Silmarillion’ for publication, so I suppose it’s unsurprising that his first novels owe a lot to Tolkien’s fantasy. Since then, however, he tends to write more what I’d call ‘historical fantasy’ – I’ve just finished ‘The Sarantine Mosaic’, based on the Byzantium of Justinian and Theodora, and ‘A Song for Arbonne’ based on mediaeval France, and they’re much, much better than The Fionavar Tapestry.

  4. I’m glad you didn’t stop after The Fionavar Tapestry! I liked them well enough, but they’re definitely rougher than Kay’s later work.

    Tigana is tied for my favorite with The Lions of Al-Rassan, if you’re looking for opinions about where to go next. 🙂

  5. The Lions of Al-Rassan is my favourite too.

    As for the Fionavar Tapestry… it’s just too ‘haiku’ for me to get strongly invested in the characters.

    Given what a versatile and gifted writer Kay is, I have to think that he *deliberately* kept those first three books minimal and mythical = deliberately Tolkienesque. I did a re-read of the Tapestry after I read Ysabel, but tried to animate the characters ‘in behind’ the writing. It worked pretty well: the characters are ‘true;’ they just aren’t detailed very much.

  6. Pingback: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay « The Sleepless Reader

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