Voidhawk.com Book and film reviews

28Nov/100

“Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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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

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