I’ve read all of Guy Gavriel Kay’s previous novels and enjoyed them all (even if some are better than others) so bought this soon after it was released.
Like a lot of his previous books Kay has decided to set the story in what is ostensibly a fantasy world but one that maps very closely to real history (to the extent that individual characters and places are often identifiable even if under slightly different names) with some minor supernatural elements added. This book is in many ways a follow-up to his Sarantine Mosaic duology (which I think is one of Kay’s best works) which was set at the height of Kay’s world’s equivalent of the Byzantine Empire. Children of Earth and Sky is set many centuries after the Sarantine books, shortly after the great city of Sarantium has fallen to his world’s equivalent of the Ottoman Empire who now threaten neighbouring nations with much of the story taking place in the mercantile republics of Seressa (Venice) and Dubrava (Dubrovnik) as they try to trade with both sides in the conflict. I don’t really know much about the period of European history Kay’s book is based on, so this is an unusual fantasy book where I’ve feel like I’ve learned more about actual history from reading something not technically set in our world. While it’s not really necessary to have read the Sarantine books to follow the plot in this there are some nice references to the previous series scattered throughout the book and it does revisit some familiar locations.
I’ve always liked Kay’s characterisation and this time around he does seem to have avoided some of his past excesses about having characters who are supremely talented at everything they turn their hand to. I thought there was some really good character development here. The idea of heroism seems to be one of the main themes here and Kay does a good job of showing characters who may in some respects be genuinely heroic and morally ambiguous at the same time. There is a good variety of characters here as well, while the two main female protagonists may be very different they both find their own ways of making an impact on the world.
I did think this book took a while to really get going, the first hundred or so pages seem largely devoted to introducing a large cast of characters in a variety of settings and they can initially feel a bit disconnected. One thing Kay does well is showing how suddenly violence could break out in such a world, and it’s after one of those abrupt outbreaks of violence that I thought the book started to become compelling. Overall the book is more focused on character interactions and political intrigue than action but when required it does deliver some compelling action scenes with a forest ambush and a desperate rearguard action against an invading army being particularly memorable. Although this isn’t a book with a single straightforward plotline I think Kay did a good job of weaving the different plotlines together so it feels like a coherent novel and although the ending, like real history, doesn’t tie everything up too neatly it does offer enough of a conclusion to be satisfying.
Overall, I’d probably rank this not far behind Kay’s best books, other than taking a while to get going I don’t have any major criticisms of it.
Rating : 8.5 / 10
I had enjoyed Kay’s fantasy novel “Under Heaven”, set in a fantasy world heavily influenced by the history of Tang Dynasty China so I was looking forward to the semi-sequel which is set in the same setting several centuries later. In the time period between the two books several dynasties have risen and fallen in Kitai (Kay’s fantasy equivalent of China), the story in River of Stars corresponds to events during the Song Dynasty, although I only know by reading about it on the Internet since my knowledge of medieval Chinese history is very limited (I spent half the novel thinking that the troublesome Northern barbarians who go on a war of conquest were meant to be the Mongols, but apparently they’re an earlier group of invaders).
Although the intervening centuries mean that there are limited connections between the books there are some thematic links, the most obvious link is that the way Kitai is being run is in many ways a reaction to the trauma of the events occurring in Under Heaven, particularly the suspicion between the Imperial Court and the military. This suspicion is central to the plot because Ren Daiyan, one of the book’s main characters, believes that his destiny is to rebuild the reputation of the army of the Kitai so that it can regain the occupied lands lost in an earlier war. Much of the book follows Ren’s rise from humble beginnings as the son of a provincial clerk to a position of power via a career as a bandit. The other main character, Lin Shan, also has ambitions that she seems unlikely to achieve, although in her case the main problem is the misogyny of a society that refuses to let woman deviate from their assigned roles.
I thought “Under Heaven” had been compelling from the beginning, but had become a bit weaker towards the end as the scope expanded and Kitai descended into war with the book struggling to give a good overview of all that was happening. “River of Stars” is the opposite, while the characterisation and world-building is strong from the start the plot isn’t all that interesting at first but it becomes more involving as Kitai comes under threat from its warlike neighbours and it has a strong ending that manages to satisfyingly tie up the various plotlines. I think this is particularly true of Ren’s storyline, to begin with he does come across as arrogant in his certainty that he has a great destiny but he becomes a more interesting character in the latter part of the novel as he has to modify his ambitions to take account of the needs of his country and faces an increasing dilemma in terms of whether he should follow Imperial orders or do what he thinks is right.
In the first part of the book I thought Lin Shan was the strongest character, it could easily have been the case that she felt a bit anachronistic in terms of her opinions on a woman’s place in society but I think the book did a good job of making her feel like a product of her society even if she rebelled against many aspect of it. It’s perhaps a bit of a shame that the book focuses on her less towards the end of the story, although she does still get a few moments to shine.
The supporting characters are also good, the scheming elderly Prime Minister being a particularly memorable character and I also liked the portrayal of the Emperor as someone who was well-meaning but so divorced from the reality of the world beyond his palace that he doesn’t see how much damage his regime is doing to Kitai, despite being all-powerful he also feels in many ways like an unwitting prisoner.
Although this is supposedly a fantasy novel, like many of Kay’s books there is very little magic, but Ren’s encounter with an enigmatic fox spirit is one of the highlights of the book, although Kay rarely uses magic in his stories he is very good at portraying it and mixing myth into his stories.
I think the world-building is another one of Kay’s strengths and it is done very well here. The loose ties to Under Heaven are particularly effective at showing the effects of history on later events, and one of the main themes is suggesting that while forgetting history can lead to mistakes being repeated, trying too hard to learn from historical mistakes can be equally damaging.
I would probably rate this similar to Under Heaven, although it does suffer a bit from a slow start the ending of the book is very strong and although at first glance there are only loose connections between this and the earlier book I think they complement each other well.
Rating : 8/10
Kay’s next book was atypically set on modern-day Earth rather that a historical parallel Earth, although it was still a fantasy and still featured plenty of historical elements. The novel’s hero is young Ned Marriner, a 15-year old boy from Canada enjoying a vacation in Provence while accompanying his father, a famous landscape photographer working on a book about the Provencal landscape. While wandering around the otherwise deserted medieval cathedral his father is photographing he meets a fellow teenager, a female exchange student from New York. Their conversation is interrupted by them spotting a furtive intruder in the cathedral – a mysterious man who breaks into an ancient crypt and quickly emerges again, puzzled by what he finds there. Catching the teenagers watching him, he warns them to mind their own business, threatens them obliquely, makes a few mysterious comments then leaves but somehow Ned feels compelled to continue to investigate. He doesn’t realise he’s just become entangled in the latest chapter of a supernatural story that has been reoccurring regularly ever since Greek and Roman explorers and armies first encountered the ancient Celtic population of Provence. Through the millennia two resurrected men have been destined to compete again and again for the love of the titular Ysabel, the Celtic woman they first competed over so many years ago. Unfortunately for Ned and his friends and family he also finds himself entangled in the story – he must find the resurrected Ysabel before the others do or else one of his innocent companions will lose her life. Fortunately, although he doesn’t realise it at first, Ned has latent psychic powers passed down in the family and he also gets some additional supernatural assistance from a couple of other characters who previously appeared in Kay’s “Fionovar Tapestry” series.
The plot of the novel is a bit of a departure for Kay, although there have been elements of mystical Celtic fantasy in some his previous books (“Last Light of the Sun”, for example), Ysabel is unusual in that it focuses on those elements without the political intrigues and clashes of civilisations that were the focus of most of his other works. Rather than dealing directly with the clash of civilisations as in The Lions of Al-Rassan this book deals with the aftermath of the clash of civilisations, with the resurrected spirits still attempting to fight cultural battles that were lost thousands of years ago. Their quixotic quest is a definite contrast to the modern world that Ned Marriner and his friends live in. The plot never quite has the depth of Tigana or The Lions of Al-Rassan but it is still an entertaining and compelling read once it gets past the slightly clumsy and unconvincing opening. Fortunately, the end of the book is stronger than the start and overall it is quite a good plot although it can’t help but feel a bit contrived at times.
The characters are interesting and likeable, with the two antagonists both being fairly charismatic, and although they are opposed to Ned’s efforts to thwart their efforts to possess Ysabel, they are never really evil, just obsessed. Ned is a fairly accurate portrayal of a teenager jolted from mild apathy at a dull family holiday into a desperate quest and his companions are reasonably interesting characters as well (although they don’t have as much depth as many of Kay’s past characters). Where the characterisation is occasionally slightly unconvincing is in Ned and his family’s reactions to the supernatural events around them in the early parts of the book, where they are either unconvincingly credulous or foolishly determined to try to carry on with normal life when they know something strange is going on.
One of Kay’s strengths has always been his worldbuilding and although he doesn’t have to describe a new fantasy world here, he does do an excellent job of conveying the culture and spectacular scenery of Provence. The description of the ancient civilisations that gave rise to the recurring conflict are also evocative, even if there have been so many Celtic-themed fantasies that some elements start to seem a bit clichéd. One slight flaw in the world-building is that Kay’s attempts to emphasise the modern setting sometimes feel a bit overdone – some of the frequent references to e-mails or iPods feel a bit incongruous as if Kay is trying to hard to write a contemporary novel.
In summary, this is a very entertaining book despite not having the depth of Kay’s best work and having a few small flaws. It may be light reading, but it is fun light reading.
Rating : 8 / 10
Kay’s next book was again in the same alternate-Earth as “The Lions of Al-Rassan” and “The Sarantine Mosaic”, this time set at the end of the Dark Ages as the fictional equivalent of King Alfred the Great is building up what would one day become the nation of England and fighting off Viking attacks.
The novel initially follows two separate narrative strands – in one Alun ap Owyn, a young Cyngael (this world’s equivalent of Welsh) prince witnesses the death of his brother in an Erling (Viking) raid, then he encounters magical spirits in the forest before setting off on a journey to the court of King Aeldred (Alfred). The second strand follows Bern Thorkellson, a young Erling warrior who is forced to flee from his home after stealing a horse in an attempted act of vengeance. Forced to make his own way in the world he attempts to become an Erlings raider, trying to join up with a respected mercenary company. As the novel progresses the two strands come together as the Erlings attempt an invasion of the Anglcyn (English) Kingdom, while Alun seeks vengeance for his slain brother and Bern tries to find his exiled father.
One of the unusual narrative features of this novel is the number of brief side-stories told during it. Many times when a new character is introduced, even for a brief cameo, Kay will break off the main narrative to chart the course of their future life, telling brief tales of the lives of the peasants and soldiers that the main characters meet along the way. It is in an interesting attempt at showing the lives of the ordinary people in a medieval world whose concerns may be less exciting than the nobles and warriors that make up the main cast, but who are ultimately just as important in their own world. While this feature does add some extra depth to the story, it does have the disadvantage that it distracts from the main plot and slows down the pace of the main narrative.
As usual with Kay the quality of the writing and characterisation is strong, the main characters are complex and well-developed characters with Aeldred being particularly interesting. The Dark Ages is a period often ignored as a source for historical fantasy in favour of the medieval period or Celtic influences so it is interesting to see a novel based around a fantasy equivalent of King Alfred’s court. The world building is convincingly detailed and manages to show quite a lot of the Anglcyn and Erling cultures. Although the Erlings may be the antagonists in the novel, Kay makes sure that the Erling characters such as Bern are fully developed and have understandable motivations for their warlike behaviour.
The story is interesting without being one of Kay’s best. The first part of the book introduces the characters and setting and manages to include a few strong dramatic sequences as well, showing the Erling raid on the Cyngaels and Bern’s flight from his home. The middle part of the book focuses on the Erling invasion of Anglcyn in what is the most interesting part of the book. Unfortunately, the end of the book, as the main characters attempt to head off a follow-up Erling raid on Cyngael is possibly a bit weaker as the plotting does start to feel excessively contrived and based on unlikely coincidences and the attempts to include some minor fantastical elements in the form of the spirits of the forest do feel a bit like a gratuitous attempt to push this firmly into the fantasy genre, the fantastical elements don’t really add anything to the novel.
In summary, this is another entertaining, well-written book. However, despite the interesting setting the plot (although perfectly adequate) never really manages to become as compelling as the plot in Kay’s earlier novels, such as Tigana or A Song for Arbonne. This is a good book, but not Kay’s best.
Rating : 7.5 / 10
The sequel to “Sailing to Sarantium” immediately picks up where the first book left off, and quickly accelerates the plot. The intrigue gets much more complex and deadly as a coup attempt is launched against Emperor Valerius. Crispin and his friends must somehow find a way to survive despite being drawn into the centre of events, Crispin meanwhile faces a threat to his masterpiece as some of the more religious members of the Sarantine nobility declare that his detailed and life-like mosaic are sacrilegious in their attempt to portray the Jaddite God. There are also some new characters added, some new sub-plots explored and the main plot is never predictable and the success or even survival of any of the main characters never feels assured. The only small flaw with the plot is that it does get slightly ridiculous how every female character in Sarantium seems to be infatuated with Crispin.
Although the plot is very heavily based on the events during the era of the real-world Byzantine Emperor Justinian the Great as the novel moves on it does start to differ from history in a few ways, perhaps an attempt by Kay to show how big differences in the course of history can result from seemingly minor events.
The novel does also have some commentary on the significance of historical events in the form of a couple of brief chapters unconnected to the main plot. In one, the climatic events in Sarantium are juxtaposed against the tragedy of the death of a simple farmer, in the other a humble merchant in a far-off land has a vision that will lead to him founding a new religion that will end up having a huge effect on Sarantium’s future.
Unsurprisingly, Kay again produces his traditionally excellent prose, dialogue and characterisation and uses those tools to describe an increasingly compelling plot. While the first book in the series felt a bit like an extended prologue at times, “Lord of Emperors” is a fast-moving page-turner.
In summary, judged as a whole the Sarantine Mosaic duology is an excellent piece of storytelling that gets better as the story progresses.
Rating : 9 / 10
Rather than inventing another fantasy world for his next work, the two-volume Sarantine Mosaic, Kay stuck with the world used in “The Lions of Al-Rassan”, although this novel is set several centuries before Lions during the height of the Sarantine Empire, Kay’s alternate version of the Byzantine Empire.
Emperor Valerius II is the capable and ambitious ruler of Sarantium and he is determined to both defeat the rival middle-eastern Empire of Bassania and regain the barbarian-occupied lands of what had been the Rhodian Empire (Kay’s version of Rome). Sarantium is one of the greatest and wealthiest cities of the world and Valerius is also determined to build one of the world’s great architectural wonders, the Sanctuary, a huge domed temple to the Jaddite God. To decorate the temple he needs to find the most talented artists. He sends a messenger to the Kingdom of the Antae, who rule part of the remnant of the Rhodian Empire, to recruit a talented mosaicist to work on the project. The mosaicist feels too old to make the journey but instead sends his assistant Crispin, a master of the art of building mosaics. Crispin is a short-tempered relatively young man still in mourning for the death of his wife and two daughters in a recent plague. He is reluctantly persuaded to answer the Emperor’s summons and sets off on a journey to Sarantium. The most interesting part of his journey is Crispin’s inadvertent stumbling into the attempt by some villagers to sacrifice one of their own young women to a pagan God, a God Crispin soon finds is anything but mythical. Surviving that ordeal he eventually finds himself in Sarantium where he quickly finds himself embroiled in the intrigues and dangers of the Sarantine’s opulent and deadly high society. Emperor Valerius and his equally intelligent and dangerous Empress are both very capable rulers but they still find themselves threatened by factions who resent Valerius’ family’s usurpation of the title of Empiror as well as having to avoid the dangers of religious disagreements with some of Sarantium’s leading nobles – including Leontes the military genius who leads his armies but who believes that Valerius’ Sanctuary is blasphemous.
The premise is a long way from the typical fantasy novel, there is no Epic Quest here or Evil to fight, instead the novel focuses on the various intrigues in the Sarantine Empire. These range from the plots against Valerius and the scheming of the exiled Queen of the Antae (fleeing from her nobles who object to being ruled by a woman) to the smaller-scale problems of Crispin and his friends and those of the physician Ruskem, a new arrival from the Empire of Bassania who finds himself reluctantly compelled to spy on behalf of the Bassanaid Emperor. More subplots centre on the rivalry between the different factions who support the various teams in Sarantium’s national sport – the fast and violent sport of chariot racing, the rivalry between the two main sporting factions having a key influence on Sarantine politics and often spilling over into bloodshed.
As in Kay’s previous novels the characterisation and writing is excellent throughout. Crispin is an engaging and complex main character and there is a fascinating array of supporting characters. The intrigue and character interactions are convoluted but always feel believable, although occasionally it does feel a bit contrived the way that Crispin ends up meeting and influencing so many of the important characters in Sarantine society. One of the best features of the book is that it manages to make interesting and bring to the foreground elements of the setting that would be mere afterthoughts in most fantasy novels – from the detailed descriptions of the chariot races to Crispin’s painstaking creation of the mosaics. It is rare for a book to have such an evocative portrayal of a piece of visual artwork.
If there is one problem with Sailing to Sarantium, it is that it gets off to a relatively slow start. In fact, most of the book is ultimately build-up, there isn’t any real plot resolution and although a lot of the groundwork is laid in the first book it isn’t until the sequel “Lord of Emperors” that the plot really gets going. That said, there are some stand-out scenes in the book, particularly the exhilarating chariot-racing scenes and the powerful sub-plot where Crispin tries to stop a young woman being sacrificed to a forest spirit en-route to Sarantium.
In summary, Sailing to Sarantium is definitely part one of a story, and doesn’t really stand on its own. It is a bit slow to start, but the rich characterisation and fascinating setting make it well worth reading.
Rating : 8 / 10
Kay’s next novel was “The Lions of Al-Rassan”. While this was ostensibly another fantasy novel, it arguably is closer to being historical fiction. “A Song for Arbonne” and “Tigana” had taken some inspiration from medieval European culture and history but not to the same extent as “Lions” which takes place in a fantasy world that is almost a literal replica of medieval Europe. The geography and history of Kay’s alternate Europe very closely parallels real history, with occasional differences, and the main religions in the book (which all play a crucial role in the plot) are clearly based on Christianity, Islam and Judaism (their equivalents in the book being the religions of the Jaddite, Asharite and Kindath peoples respectively).
The historical setting is the latter stages of the Reconquista, the long struggle by the Christian rulers of Northern Spain to drive out the Muslim Moorish Kingdoms that ruled most of what is now Spain for several centuries. In the book both the Jaddite and Asharite factions are split into several competing Kingdoms, with the Jaddites seeking to overcome their differences to launch a concerted attack against the Asharite Kingdoms. The Asharites are vulnerable after the recent splintering of their nation of Al-Rassan after the assassination of the last Kaliph, and are forced to consider making an alliance with the more fundamentalist Asharite tribes of Kay’s equivalent of North Africa. Meanwhile, the Kindath are stuck in the middle, they are reasonably happy living under Asharite rule and fear the anti-Kindath sentiments of many of the Jaddites.
The story focuses on three main characters – one from each of the main religious groups. Rodrigo Belmonte is one of the Jaddite’s most respected military leaders, known as the Scourge of Al-Rassan. A hard but honourable man, he would prefer to retire to his farm with his young family, but his persistence in questioning the circumstances of the mysterious death of the last King of Valledo and a military clash with a rival Jaddite noble who was conducting an illegal raid on an Asharite Kingdom lead to him being exiled. Ammar ibn Khairen is a warrior, poet and political adviser to the Asharite Kings of Cartada. He is also the man who assassinated the last Kaliph and he too finds himself exiled despite being the mentor of the new King of Cartada – a man he put on the throne. The third main character is Jehane, a female Kindath physician who is also forced to flee her home after sheltering one of her patients from execution by the new King of Cartada.
Soon, all three characters find themselves in the Kingdom of Ragosa, the most liberal of the Asharite Kingdoms where all the various people of the peninsula live together in relative harmony. Both Rodrigo and Ammar find themselves working together as mercenary captains for the King of Ragosa. Both men like and respect the other, but they know they are both rivals – both have a romantic interest in Jehane and both know that while they may be fighting together now they will eventually end up leading opposing sides in the inevitable war between the Asharites and Jaddites.
The Lions of Al-Rassan is a novel driven more by character and setting than by plot. The plot is primarily a device to explore the differing cultures of the peninsula (and how those cultures interact) and to explore the various characters. Rodrigo and Ammar are intriguing, charismatic characters. Both are likeable but ruthless, complex and believable and both very alike in many ways even though they come from completely different cultures. Jehane is an equally strong character, an independent woman caught between two cultures and between the two main male characters and trying to figure out which side she belongs with. The supporting characters are also varied, interesting and well-characterised.
There is a great deal of historical detail here as well, much of it taken from real history with just a few fantasy additions. The description of the setting never involves dull exposition; instead Kay manages to portray a vivid picture of his competing cultures without the background detail ever getting in the way of the story.
The clash-of-civilisations plot is interesting and compelling (particularly as Kay refuses to favour either side) and the subplots are entertaining, although it is a slight disappointment that although we see a lot of the build-up there is very little of the actual Reconquista itself.
The prose and dialogue is of a consistently high quality, entertaining and often poetic and the occasional inclusion of Ammar’s poems show that Kay is a good enough poet for their inclusion not to feel like an indulgence.
In summary, despite the fantasy tag this is closer to being historical fiction with a few minor fantasy elements added. The genre is largely irrelevant when the writing and characterisation is as good as this. Perhaps the plot isn’t quite as focused or compelling as in Tigana or A Song for Arbonne, but this is still an excellent book.
Rating : 8.5 / 10
Kay’s follow-up to “Tigana” was “A Song for Arbonne”, another stand-alone historical fantasy novel set in a similar but distinct Fantasy world. This time, the setting is based on medieval Provence, most of the action taking place in the Kingdom of Arbonne, a relatively pleasant feudal country under the influence of the benevolent priestesses of the Goddess Rian. Arbonne finds itself under threat from its Northern neighbour, the more warlike country of Gorhaut, which is dominated by the misogynistic priesthood of the war God Corannos. Offended by Arbonne’s worship of a female deity the Machiavellian High Priest Galbert manipulates the avaricious King Ademar into invading Arbonne. The rulers of Arbonne know that an invasion is possible, but their preparations are continually disrupted by the endless feud between the country’s two leading Dukes, Urte de Miraval and Bertrand de Talair who have hated each other since Urte’s wife died in mysterious circumstances shortly after Urte’s discovery she was having an affair with Bertrand. The book’s main character Blaise finds himself caught in the middle of this after agreeing to work for Bertrand. Blaise is a mercenary working for hire after leaving his homeland of Gorhaut in disgust at the actions of King Ademar and the manipulations of Galbert, who is Blaise’s father. Blaise soon finds himself increasingly liking the lands of Arbonne and admiring his new employer, Bertrand, who is a famously prolific writer and performer of songs as well as being one of his country’s leading nobles. The bohemian lifestyles of Arbonne’s troubadours, who are regarded as a crucial part of the country’s culture, is one of the more obvious aspects of the difference between Arbonne and the relatively grim lands of Gorhaut.
The plot isn’t quite as ambitious as in Tigana, instead this is essentially a relatively simple tale of Arbonne striving to defend itself against its more aggressive neighbour. There are plenty of complications, naturally, particularly focused around the novel’s main theme of the contradictory demands of family, personal beliefs, and loyalty to one’s country, epitomised in the struggle between Blaise and his domineering father and drunkard brother and in Bertrand’s and Urte’s feud which threatens to do so much damage to their country.
Although the setting is again vividly described, the best bit of the book is the characters. Blaise is a very likeable hero, but also a realistically complicated character, not being anywhere near to being a simple hero although perhaps not quite as morally complex as Alessan in Tigana. The supporting characters are also interesting and believable, Bertrand in particular is an interesting character, admirable in most ways but with some very human flaws which cause a lot of problems. Compared to Brandin in Tigana, the villains are a bit more simplistic, they don’t really have any obvious good points, but their motivations are at least believable.
The story is compelling and the quality of the writing again high. Arguably, this doesn’t have quite as many truly great scenes as Tigana and the novel doesn’t have quite the same ambition but it is still very entertaining to read and doesn’t really have any significant flaws (although again the plotting seems a little bit contrived at times in the way that all the major characters in the war have so many connections between them).
In summary, “A Song for Arbonne” is an excellent Fantasy novel with a compelling story that lacks some of the ambition of “Tigana” but it is still a very good read.
Rating : 8/10
After making his debut with the Epic Fantasy trilogy, “The Fionavar Tapestry”, “Tigana” was the first of Guy Gavriel Kay’s historical Fantasy novels. Its setting is largely based on medieval Italy, the ‘Peninsula of the Palm’ is a land of nine rival provinces which share (mostly) a common culture but were each independent and continually trying to assert their dominance over their neighbours. Two decades before the time of the book the lands of the Palm suffered a double invasion as two competing foreign forces embarked on a war of conquest. From one direction came the forces of Brandin, King of Ygrath, from the other came the mercenary army of Alberico, a mid-ranking noble from the empire of Barbadior. The divided forces of the Palm could not defend themselves against the twin threat and four of the provinces were conquered by Brandin, four more by Alberico and the remaining province only remains independent because both Brandin and Alberico know that an attempt to invade it would lead to a war between the two of them. Both Brandin and Alberico are powerful sorcerers as well as being ruthless governors and military leaders and a couple of decades after the invasions the population of the Palm has little hope of freedom and is starting to grudgingly accept its overlords.
The main characters in this book refuse to lie down and submit to the rule of Brandin or Alberico. Most of them come from the land of Tigana, one of the provinces conquered by Brandin, who paid a very high price for their initial victory against Brandin’s forces during his invasion. Brandin’s beloved son was leading the army that invaded and was killed in the battle. The Tiganans victory was short-lived, when Brandin eventually conquered Tigana he was mad with grief and systematically set out to destroy the country. As well as destroying the country’s infrastructure and punishing the country’s population he also set out to destroy all memory of Tigana, attempting to wipe it from the history books and also attempting to wipe it from people’s minds. Using his magic he made it so that no-one other than those born in Tigana before the spell was cast will ever be able to say or remember the name of Tigana. When the last of those born before the invasion dies the memory of Tigana will die with them.
The main protagonist is Alessan, son of the last prince of Tigana, who is in hiding as a member of a group of travelling musicians and secretly plotting to win back the memory of his country and free the countries of the Palm. Over the years he has built up an extensive network of contacts from Tiganan exiles and other rebellious patriots but he has a very difficult task – it is not enough merely to bring down either Brandin or Alberico, if one falls then the other would quickly seize the opportunity to control the whole of the Palm, for Tigana to truly gain its freedom both must be brought down at once. Deposing one of the powerful sorcerers would be extremely difficult, deposing both should be impossible, but fortunately Alessan has a plan. Most of the story focuses on two plot threads, one following Alessan and his companion’s attempts to bring down the two tyrants, the second on Brandin’s attempts to win the acceptance of his new subjects. Neither story is actually told from the perspective of the main character; Alessan is mostly seen through the eyes of Devin, a talented young musician whose father fled the ruins of Tigana with his family shortly after Devin’s birth. After Devin accidentally discovers the truth about his companions he becomes part of their schemes. Brandin’s story is told from the perspective of Dianora, another Tiganan native who lied about her country of origin and joined Brandin’s harem in an attempt to assassinate Brandin and therefore lift his spell on Tigana, but slowly falls in love with the King as he struggles to rule his new subjects well and survive assassination attempts by those from his court in Ygrath who are jealous of his obsession with his new lands.
One of the common features of Kay’s books is the moral ambiguity of many the characters. A simplistic view of the plot would suggest Alessan is the hero and Brandin the villain and to some extent this is true, but both characters are more complicated than that summary would suggest. Alessan may have a cause worth fighting for but he doesn’t flinch from carrying out morally wrong actions if they help his cause, some of his group’s acts border on terrorism and his plans involve a lot of innocent people being forced to fight for a cause they may not necessarily want to fight for. Brandin’s grief-fuelled actions against Tigana are undeniably monstrous but Dianora is gradually forced to admit than other than his obsessive vendetta he is (by medieval standards) a good ruler of the rest of his lands and generally preferable to his rival Alberico, although even Alberico is not quite a simplistic villain either. The morality of the character’s actions is a major theme of the book, as is the question of how much is justified by a noble cause and whether pride and patriotism are good justifications for conflict.
The supporting cast of character is similarly complex, particularly Alessan’s headstrong sidekick Catriana and Erlein, a minor magician who becomes a key part of Alessan’s plan. Erlein – who asserts that most of the Palm is better off under its new rulers than it was under the former rule of the feuding provinces and he doesn’t see why he should risk his life to secure his freedom – has to be coerced by Alessan into taking part in one of Alessan’s more morally questionable actions.
The quality of Kay’s writing is very good in this, as it is in his later books. His prose is often poetic and beautiful and although the occasionally slightly melodramatic dialogue may not be to everyone’s tastes, I think it works very well. There are a number of particularly memorable scenes and both the intriguing start of the novel and the cleverly plotted ending are well done.
There isn’t very much to criticise in this book. Kay perhaps doesn’t explain his themes quite as clearly as he may have intended – Erlein certainly has a point in his arguments with Alessan but his character arc and the dialogue in those scenes are too heavily slanted in favour of Alessan’s point of view for it to really be a proper debate. Also, the plotting does sometime feel a bit contrived, the precise way Brandin’s spell works for example (forcing him to stay on the Palm until all the Tiganans have died) is a bit too convenient for the plot and there are a few unlikely coincidences (such as Dianora’s brother being Alessan’s right-hand man) and a couple of the sex scenes seem a bit gratuitous.
In summary, this is an intelligently written, entertaining and compelling piece of Fantasy writing that deserves its status as one of the classics of Fantasy literature.
Rating : 9 / 10