Friday, November 27, 2009

Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Book Info: Tigana. Fantasy Novel. Stand alone. 676 pages. First published 1999. Tenth Anniversary Edition with an afterward by the author.

Author Info: Guy Gavriel Kay, Canadian novelist, poet, and lawyer. Other books: The Fionavar Tapestry: The Summer Tree, The Wandering Fire, The Darkest Road, The Sarantine Mosaic: Sailing to Sarantium, Lord of Emporers, Last Light of the Sun, A Song for Arbonne, Ysabel, Under Heaven(forthcoming). Was retained by the JRR Tolkien Estate to assist in the editing and publishing of The Silmarillion. Website:

Plot Summary: Prior to the events of the novel two rival kingdoms invade a peninsula composed of independent city states. Each of the invading armies is led by a powerful wizard who uses magic as well as strategy, and political subversion to ensure the conquered populace do not rise up. One of the wizards/rulers, Brandin, lost a son in subjugation of the peoples. He then laid a curse on that province, Tigana, to be removed from the memory of men. Tigana can not be heard by outsiders, nor can anyone outside the province recall anything of the inhabitants. The inhabitants remember but cannot speak of their past. They are cursed to watch as time slowly erases their history and culture from the minds of the world.

The story opens with a cast of characters who seek to rise up and remove not only the curse but the invaders and their armies. They include a former prince, a troubador in a well respected performing troupe, an actress, a wizard, a former stone mason and an exiled and disguised Duke. The novel follows their attempts to free the people of the palm, the name for the peninsula, from the invaders.

Analysis: Tigana has set a standard for what a fantasy novel can do. It is at the same time a sound political commentary on the attempt to rewerite history by a conqueror, as it is a psychological study of revolutionaries who decide to remove an invader though life itself has changed little. In fact, in some ways, life improved. There is an inventiveness, combined with a musical ear for well turned poetic phrases that resonate long after a reading.

As I delved further into the book I found that I compared this novel often with Abercrombie's First Law Trilogy, and Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire. In both those books a cynics worldview prevails and any attempt to pursue a noble or high minded goal is quickly ridiculed, and often fails. While both books are to me a true presentation of the way life is and humans treat each other, I found Tigana to be genuinely tragic, in a way that the previously mentioned series were not. In Tigana, there are no simple classification of good guys and bad guys either, but nor is there the assumption that all men are, to quote Jean Paul Sartre "bastards and liars." The invaders are portrayed with insight, realism and human motivation so much so that as readers we find that we can't necessarily call up the hatefulness we feel is appropriate response to their actions.

The magic system in Tigana was unique and did not read like it was culled from the pages of a Dungeons and Dragons Guide. There were several scenes which jumped out for sheer inventiveness: an archer/assasin who uses a bow from which hangs a lock of his victims hair, the night walkers, their battles, and most especially the binding of wizards to princes.
A fantasy novel with not just heart, but intelligence and excellent characterization. I am now going to read all his books.

Similar Reads: For theme, the dangers of the past and its curse of the present: Ysabel, by Kay; Old Mortality, by Sir Walter Scott. For poetic magic: The Name of the Wind, by Pat Rothfuss. The Curse of Chalion, by Lois McMaster Bujold.

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