Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (1990)


A successful lawyer, a philosophy student who helped Christopher Tolkien in The Silmarillion edits, a reasonably well-known author of award-winning fantasy novels, Kay is a veritable jack of all trades. He prefers to set his novels in historical periods, but in imaginary settings, which allows him to create interesting parallels without the burden of fact-checking ;). Although it may be a bit unfair to judge him so harshly – I think that writing responsible historical fiction is a very difficult task and I’m the last to blame anyone if they prefer to concentrate on character development or creating worlds of their own.

And Tigana is set in such a world: one strikingly similar to Renaissance Italy, called Peninsula of the Palm and divided into nine separate provinces sharing a long, not always benevolent or peaceful history. Tigana is the name of one of the provinces; when two warring tyrants with magical powers conquer the subsequent pieces of land, Tigana is the last one to be subdued. In the battle there the son of one of the tyrants, Brandin, dies. Stricken by grief, Brandin decides to erase the name of Tigana and all of its history from the human memory. But there are survivors. One of them is Alessan, the last prince of Tigana. The others – Catriana, Dianora, Devin and the duke Sandre d’Astibar – he gathers around himself as he prepares his vengeance against Brandin.

There seems to be a lot going on, but not much actually happens in the book, despite its almost 700 pages – and the events that happen are rather small in scope and personal. I’d be tempted to describe Tigana as character-driven novel, but to do so I’d have to overlook the fact that the characters in Kay’s novel do not evolve. They are more like certain types of protagonists, like painstakingly detailed literary templates, than real-life, multi-dimensional people. Kay wanted to create morally ambiguous characters but as I read his book I had an ever stronger impression that along the way he somehow had forgotten about this goal. Even the most wretched tyrants are in their heart of hearts good people who just made some mistakes. We should pity them, not condemn them, apparently.

The author himself described this novel as a book about memory. A laudable and very ambitious attempt. But his approach to memory itself is somewhat questionable, or at least quite controversial. Memory in Kay’s Tigana seems to be something set in stone. It can be erased by powerful magic, which, by the way, is apparently the most hideous act there can be (forget about thousands dead or dying), but even then it still exists, like Plato’s ideals, rooted deeply in blood and dirt. Although truly it seems rooted in genes, some kind of hereditary disease. Yeah, disease, because memories shape the lives of Tigana’s protagonists like some malevolent Fates, leading them from one action to another, from one decision to the next. Kay describes the deeds of his protagonists as unavoidable, inescapable – and I have an impression that it is as much due to his Tolkien-inspired style, as to his apparent worldview.

The readers of Tigana divide themselves typically into two separate groups: those who love it and those who very much don’t. The book has been lauded as perfect, rich in detail, written in a beautiful style, etc. At the same time there were accusations of fascism, of sexism, of buckets of pathos flowing freely from every page. I can’t say I hate the novel – in fact, it’s written very well. The author has an admirable amount of control over his complex, detailed world. The prose flows, and almost every sentence is written with aesthetics in mind. But I must agree with the accusations of sexism – for example, the main female protagonists (both of them) deal with problems – and are praised for it – through using their bodies in unwanted sex. Sex is a tool they use freely, even if with a bit of moral squeamishness. And in the end they are rewarded for their services to the country – by gaining the love of their sovereigns. Ugh.

Fascism is a very strong word. I don’t believe that Kay is a fascist or even harbors fascist inclinations; but I think he presents in Tigana some very controversial approaches to the ideas of nationalism and patriotism. As I mentioned above in the paragraph about memory – making human memories something unchangeable, immutable, and clearly linked to blood brings us into a very dangerous territory, full of hidden reefs such as the idea of sanctity of nationality, of genetic supremacy of some people over other, of the genetic transfer of said superiority, and so on. There’s seems to be a moral commandment, a duty of the Tiganian descendants, not only to save the memory of their lost country, but to fight – a dirty fight, never doubt – to get their forgotten country back.

And mind you, I’m writing this on the Constitution Day in Poland, well aware of Poland’s partitions and the fact that Poland hadn’t existed for over a hundred years, erased from the maps as thoroughly as Kay’s Tigana. Still, making heroes of Tigana’s protagonists, and heroes in Tolkien’s style at that, heroes whose every deed is redeemed because of the sanctity of their ultimate goal, is a bit too much even for me.

As for pathos, yeah – there’s a lot of that; tears spring from almost every page, moral choices (real or imagined) burden the protagonists who traditionally seem older than their years. Believe me, I’m not one for pathos. But still, with all above, it read nicely enough that I have finished this book without much pain; even with a slight amount of satisfaction.

All in all, Tigana’s a well-written, ambitious but ultimately misguided attempt at a novel transgressing the traditional boundaries of fantasy. A bit of history, a tad of magic, a lot of lovingly created detail in worldbuilding and character descriptions both, and much too much of doubtful philosophical and ethical dilemmas. And sexism.

Score: 6/10

4 thoughts on “Guy Gavriel Kay, Tigana (1990)

  1. piotrek

    Wow… I’m conflicted about certain aspects of Tigana myself, but that’s harsh. I feel I need to highlight strong points of the novel, so maybe a counter-review is in order…


  2. Pingback: Tigana – a different view | Re-enchantment Of The World

  3. Pingback: Guy Gavriel Kay, A Song for Arbonne (1992) | Re-enchantment Of The World

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