Tigana – a different view

Guy Gavriel Kay got his genre credentials early, when as a 20-year-old student he was chosen to help Christopher Tolkien edit Silmarillion. From my point of view – and I love Silmarillion – it’s like a rookie demi-god was asked to edit Bible. How to start your own religion after that? Kay paid homage to his tolkienian roots with excellent Fionavar Tapestry (1984-1986) and moved on to create his own blend of semi-historical fantasy epics. Starting with Tigana (1990). And since I started with religious vocabulary, let me say that I consider this blog’s May 3 review of Tigana a blasphemy 😛


I won’t say all Ola’s concerns are invalid, and I agree that a book aiming high has to be judged more harshly than a casual time-killer. But did Kay fail to such a degree? While harbouring Law & Justice-like (borderline fascist) ideas about nation, memory and gender? Well… no? I’ll try to show why I like the book and what is good about it while challenging some of Ola’s conclusions.

Later, Kay will research and remake Spain of the age of Al-Andalus, China of the Tang dynasty, Byzantium, Provence.. but he started with Renaissance Italy. And the Palm Peninsula, divided into quarrelling provinces, has a distinct Italian feel. Worldbuilding is great and detailed, brilliantly spread throughout the book without making it boring. Kay gives us glimpses into the geography, culture, economy and politics of his creation, and also its religion and magic, both playing crucial role in the story. And beautifully interwoven into the story. The theology of Palm’s Triad of gods is interesting by itself, but Eanna, Adaon and Morian also guide the characters – and readers – through the story. And culture… feels just as rich and sophisticated as Renaissance, and flawlessly integrated into the plot.

For me, Tigana is another masterful tapestry from one of the most interesting post-tolkienian fantasy writers. It is definitely high fantasy, not thanks to the pathos and lack of sex (it’s high fantasy for mature readers), but in it’s ambitious attempt to tell an important tale about a complex world. And beautifully written. Kay is a master of literary arts.

Using Italy as inspiration is a great move, and I’ll be sure to read more Kay to see what he managed to create out of other historical settings. Is it a problem it’s not historical fiction? Why would it be? Should GRRM limit himself to writing slightly magicked-up version of the War of the Roses? Kay created his own world with a well known flavour and for me its obvious that he did spent a lot of time and effort on research.

Just as divided Italy, while being cultural power, politically and militarily was a playground of countries like Spain and France, Palm is powerless against the giants of this world – Empire of Barbadior and Ygrath. And so was it conquered 20 years before the book begins, one half by Brandin, the king of Ygrath, the other by Alberico of Barbadior. Uneasy peace followed, as conquerors took their time to consolidate their power and subjugate the people. Palm’s provinces were treated differently, but while elites submitted – or suffered – for the majority of the populace change was not that big. Some say the trade is easier, bloody vendettas and local wars were stopped. Brandin is widely believed to be a better ruler, but even Alberico cares for the prosperity of his lands, his powerbase in struggles for power in the Barbadior itself.

Not everybody is happy with the occupation, especially in one of the provinces – Tigana, a country that suffered the most, after its ruler put up the strongest resistance against Brandin, killing king’s of Ygrath son in the first, successful battle. As a revenge, massacres and demolitions followed, and the very name of Tigana was erased from the world by the power of Brandin’s spell. The only people that still remember are inhabitants of Tigana born before the conquest, forced to watch as even the memory of their country is gradually erased from the world.

So they strike back. The last prince of Tigana and a few other characters dedicate their lives to liberation of the Palm – and to revenge.

And they go about it in a very troubling way. Violence, coercion, they are no knights in shining armour. I liked them, I understand why somebody wouldn’t. Some leave the struggle to build something in the new reality. Many compatriots see them as bitter troublemakers unable to adapt and move on.

Some similarities to Polish anti-communist underground fighters from the 1940ties and 50ties could be seen. Idealisation of the pre-war Tigana is obvious, collateral damage of covert fight against powerful enemies is witnessed. I really don’t feel Kay forcing me to identify with the protagonists. In many ways I intellectually supported Brandin, but I genuinely wanted the good guys to win. And I want to see the revenge. (highlight to see spoilers) That’s why the final chapters left me a very satisfied reader. It was a guilty satisfaction, over the dead bodies of Brandin and Dianora, and the final success of Alessan’s rebellion seemed too optimistic, but I’m grateful to the author for it.The point is – protagonists are no paragons of virtue, and the Kay did not present them as such, and the fact they won does not change that.

The characters are complex, interesting, and just as strong part of the novel as the world (or almost so). Are they static? Some are, but 20 years of continuous struggle might cement one’s convictions. Some change very much, like Dionara and Brandin, some mature from kids to young adults, like Devin, and even Alessan is not exactly the same as in the beginning.

Sexism… women are some of the strongest characters in the story, driving the plot forward in many ways and sometimes using sex as a weapon. Which is hardly surprising in a semi-Renaissance setting. And seen as something morally wrong, as a very hard choice and last resort. Not every writer goes Hobb’s way and creates a Europe-inspired world with gender blind armed forces. Here traditional female roles are an integral part of the setting and any other choice would be unrealistic.

Does Kay incorporate latest theories of the nature of societal memory? Well, no.  Can an observes of Polish political scene be worried about practical consequences of Alessan’s kind of patriotism? Sure, but so is the author. One major character chooses differently and it’s presented as a valid choice. All have doubts.

Memory vs genocide and relative importance of both… well, it’s not a novel trying to convince its readers that killing people is good. It just concentrates on the importance of history for the survival of nations. And it does so in such a beautiful way, without the gritty realism of grimdark, but it does not mean it’s a simply story about good conquering evil. Moral ambiguity is the point, and hard choices leave bitter after taste.

Well, the final thing is – I’m enchanted by the world and the story. For me, it is a very successful attempt at a novel transgressing the traditional boundaries of fantasy and first in a series of Kay’s unique tapestries.

Score: 9/10

6 thoughts on “Tigana – a different view

  1. Wow, you went all out on this one 😉
    I won’t challenge your conclusions (too much ;)) but I wanted to point out a few things I believe merit a closer view:
    1) the comparison to Polish underground anti-communist fighters; let’s not be shy and say exactly which fighters can be compared to the idealised Tigana world: the so called “żołnierze wyklęci”, the disavowed soldiers. They in themselves are a very controversial and ambiguous topic, but one similarity is indeed quite easy to be seen: the propensity to see the world in white and black.
    2) the role of women in Renaissance: while Kay in his imaginary world reserves sex as the only women’s weapon, but the reality was far more complex. Women in Renaissance had power and used it in many different ways – from saint Teresa of Avila to condottieri. I don’t care how many books Kay claims he had read on the subject if he doesn’t incorporate or flat out refuses the validity of these findings.
    3) the ending: well, I wanted to be merciful and not write about it, but since you bring it up… It heavily weighed on my final opinion of this book. If I had wanted to read a Harlequin, I would have picked up a Harlequin. The ending destroys any moral ambiguity this book possessed, and it wasn’t much to start with. If you want moral ambiguity, check out Cook, Eriksson, Czajkowski… The list goes on and on – but Kay’s name isn’t on it. You want a proof – read your own post – you rooted for the good guys :P.


    1. piotrek


      1) Seeing the world in black and white – ok, by the characters – and during the war you don’t need Hamlets on your side, my view remains that the novel is more nuanced. XV-century characters can’t be expected to have a morality modern militaries only theoretically adhere to…
      2) Ok, there is a handful of exceptions in the historical Renaissance. But – exceptions, and I refuse to demand from authors that they meet their quota just to make book correct, also the careers usually started differently… first female condottieri to come up in google search, Bona Lombardi, started by marrying a very male captain… In the book we have Alienor. And a province that used to be a matriarchy 🙂
      3) Yeah, ending. In my defence, after all the Red Weddings, I was really happy to see characters I dislike die for once. Even though Brandin was not Sauron. The epilogue was the weakest part of the book, but I enjoyed it anyway, my weakness. But, again, in the novel as a whole I’ve seen a much more nuanced picture than you…


      1. Yeah, let’s agree to disagree on this one 🙂
        I admit I’m a very harsh judge of what I perceive as failures, even if the intentions were good – and especially if they were ambitious. I do appreciate Kay’s literary mastery, and maybe one day I will read something else of his – the Fionavar Tapestry seems to be well regarded… I will probably have to be quite desperate to do this, but still 😉


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