Review by N.R. Alexander of The Speculative Scotsman

for Tigana

“Set in a beleaguered land caught in a web of tyranny, Tigana is the deeply moving story of a people struggling to be free. A people so cursed by the dark sorceries of the tyrant King Brandin that even the very name of their once beautiful land cannot be spoken or remembered.

“But not everyone has forgotten. A handful of men and women, driven by love, hope and pride set in motion the dangerous quest for freedom and bring back to the world the lost brightness of an obliterated name.”


It is not deceptive to say that Tigana begins with a lie. But then, many of the best tales do. There is plenty to be said for straight-forward narrative progression, of course; stories told from beginning to middle to end with nary a word wasted on anything so distracting as a character arc. The best such novels can achieve a breathless pace that carries the reader from beat to headlong beat unmindful of such oversight. If that appeals, Richard Morgan will be waiting to take your names after class. Thoughtful, tragic Tigana, however, strikes an ideal balance between that frenetic sense of momentum and the distinctly slower motion of more considered fantasy sequences.

From the first, Guy Gavriel Kay is a masterful pacemaker. We are plunged into a world most assuredly in motion with tell of the death of the Duke of Astibar. In one of that province’s public houses, a painter and a poet debate the chances that their former lord will be a given a proper burial by the brutal Barbadian oppressor who has ruled over their people since the bloody invasion he staged decades ago. Initially, it seems an overwhelming task to grasp the broad spectrum of political, religious and moral machinations already underway at the outset of Tigana, but Sandre’s passing tenders to the reader a timely insight into the nine divided states that make up the peninsula of the Palm, a nation after renaissance-era Italy’s own oft-divided heart; it sets the scene for a chain of events that will transform the provinces forever after.

The disgraced Duke’s death also serves to introduce the reader – surely already entranced – to the motley fellowship of nobles and nobodies wh
ose inexorable forward motion effects this shift. Chief amongst them, in prominence and in power, is Alessan, the single surviving Prince of Tigana, the only province of the Palm to hold at bay the invading Ygrathan armies more than momentarily. Tigana’s brief resistance managed to claim the only son of Brandin, King of that powerful force, but in his heartbreak, in his anger, the arrogant overlord dwarfed the small victory won by Alessan’s people with a tragedy so crushing that the young Prince has grown up in a world in which his nation’s very name has been removed from the memories of all those who knew it.

Alessan remembers, however, and in tribute to his most treasured memory he has sworn to rid the forcibly forgotten province of Tigana and indeed the entire Palm of spiteful Brandin of Ygrath, as well as the mercenary Barbadian aggressor who rules in the East – the blunt edge of the sword in every sense. Only by uniting the divided people of the peninsula can Alessan hope to overcome the deck that has been stacked against him, and with a fierce rallying cry, he gathers to arms an assortment of unique individuals, each with their own stake in the intertwined fates of Tigana and the greater Palm.

In Devin d’Asoli, a naive young singer with the voice of an age, the reader is given an appropriate surrogate; in Baerd, brother to Alessan – if not in blood – Kay shows us firsthand the torturous horrors of the blight Brandin and Alberico have wrought upon the Palm. Erlein, a troubadour bound unwillingly to Alessan’s cause, is an exploration of choice and obligation; and the women of Tigana, too – Catriana, Dianora, Alais and others – are as strong as any of the men that might be said to drive the narrative, as pivotal, and as more than the lustful objects of affection so many fantasies are content to suggest. With few exceptions, each of Kay’s expansive cast are drawn and developed with a flair rarely matched elsewhere in the genre. Suffice it to say that the Palm would not be such an extraordinary peninsula were it not for the flawed characters that bring its struggles to bear.

Only Alberico is given short shrift in the narrative. Certainly he is left wanting some more comprehensive character arc when set against Brandin, a sly, sensuous King who tempers his arrogance with charm. We come to know him through Baerd’s long-lost sister, Dianora, whose perspective as the preeminent prostitute in Brandin’s so-called ‘saishan’ offers the reader brief glimpses of a character who stands in stark relief against the terrible force Alessan tends to remember.

Dianora’s occasional chapters give depth and texture to the inescapable sense of tragedy that pervades Tigana, complicating, deviating and alleviating. They beg the question: Is the inevitable cost of Alessan’s epic endeavor – the price in blood – truly a just toll to pay? When the game changes, when assumptions are not merely unmet but utterly undermined, must not the rules of play alter with it? In the end, can the reality of Tigana possibly match the recollection of it?

Tigana is a tale of identity above all else, of the fallibility of memory, and from the telling truthfulness of its very first words, Kay explores these powerful themes with a characteristically subtle touch. His prose is poetic, protracted and powerful; his touch and tone deft without dumbfounding or ever dulling the impact of the text. He weaves the complex fabric of his heartfelt tale with enough attention to detail that the reader must maintain such an exquisite awareness of the world ofTigana that its narrative punches that much deeper. Kay is a lyrical author indeed, even musical: so powerful is the ebb and flow of the song he sings, from brutality to beauty in the blink of an eye. His mastery of the language is perhaps unparalleled in the entirety of speculative fiction.

When Kay calls into question subjects such as politics, religion and morality – as he is wont to do – his only answer is a resounding rebuff. Tigana is a novel to make of what you will. Bring nothing to the table and nothing is precisely what you will receive. Come with some sense of self, on the other hand, some notion of the importance of the past to the present, and a tale unlike any other will unfold before you.

Although it begins as an historical adventure of apparently humble proportions, Tigana ultimately reveals itself as a touching romantic tragedy that belies the relative brevity of the experience. What Kay accomplishes in this slim single volume is staggering. They call him the heir to Tolkein’s tradition, and though he is an equally methodical author, Kay’s incredible way with words often quite eclipses the rather pedestrian lord of the Lord of the Rings with whom he is so often compared. Tigana is an endlessly exciting and always emotional epic for the ages.

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