Wednesday, December 29, 2010

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay—a review

A common criticism leveled at fantasy is that it’s all about monsters and magic and plot and fails to address the human condition, and therefore fails as “serious” literature. I think that’s a lot of rot and that fantasy is no worse or better than mainstream fiction (some of it's great, some is awful, and most indifferent). But if there is any merit to this argument—and there is some—one can point the blame at the J.R.R. Tolkien and Robert E. Howard clones, writers who churn out multi-volume paint-by-numbers epic quests or rote stories of bad-ass, brawling heroes in formulaic stories bereft of thought or complexity.

About the highest praise I can give for Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana (1990) is that, with more novels like it, fantasy would garner a lot more respect as a genre worthy of serious study and discussion. This observation doesn’t imply that Tigana is now among my favorite fantasy novels (it’s not, though it is quite good), only that it makes use of the conventions of what most academics consider serious literature.

Kay is an author with whom I have little acquaintance. I’ve read his Fionavar Tapestry, which I thought was okay but nothing too unique or exceptional. But over the years I’ve heard that Tigana, a 1991 nominee for the World Fantasy Award, was a must-read. Now that I read it my summation is that it's very good, but not great, checking at a solid four stars in my scientific five-star rating system.

Tigana takes place on a peninsula called the Palm, whose nine small provinces have fallen under the rule of two invading armies from Ygrath and Barbadior, each led by a powerful sorcerer-king. Although conquered, the nine provinces are more or less left intact, paying tax and tribute to their respective new rulers (who maintain an uneasy truce, though behind the scenes they seek to oust the other and take the Palm for themselves). The exception is the province of Tigana. A fierce battle waged by Tigana’s defenders resulted in the death of Stevan, son of the tyrant king Brandin of Ygrath. Grief-stricken and blinded by vengeance, Brandin ordered Tigana—a place of art and culture and beautiful spires—to be razed to the ground. Using powerful magic, Brandin also expunged its very memory from the residents of the Palm. As the novel opens only a few remember its existence; most know of it only as Lower Corte. The remainder of the novel follows a small band of freedom fighters determined to cast off Brandin’s yoke and restore Tigana to memory and its former glory.

Tigana is high fantasy, so you get the standard trappings that come with the territory (a map, detailed geography and history of the Palm, epic, world-altering events, etc.). Kay does a nice job casually inserting magic and myth and religion into the novel, which makes these elements feel real. There’s no long dissertations on how they operate, which is typically the case in high fantasy (incidentally this is one of the reasons why I largely avoid high fantasy—I get bored with long explanations and backstory). I wish more authors took a cue from GKK.

Being high fantasy there’s not much “blood and thunder” in the pages of Tigana, but Kay does a good job of keeping the reader on edge with political maneuvering and backstabbing and harsh torture and punishments meted out by tyrannical rulers. Think George R.R. Martin lite.

Where Tigana shines is in its presentation of complex characters conflicted with self-doubt and warring emotions. In particular Tigana contains some wonderful depictions of women. They’re all beautiful, of course, but as a male reader that works for me. There’s the red-haired Catarina, who bears a heavy burden of disgrace inherited from her father, who fled Tigana with her and her mother instead of taking up his sword in its defense. Dianora is perhaps the book’s most convincing character. A woman of Tigana whose father was slain in its defense, Dianora works her way into Brandin’s harem and eventually into his heart in a lengthy, complex plot to assassinate him.

Tigana also shines in its clever inversions of the standard devices associated with high fantasy. Brandin is portrayed as no mere monster, and despite her thirst for vengeance Dianora realizes she’s fallen in love with him. Some of the rebels of Tigana meanwhile adhere to the belief that ends justify the means, making them little better than their barbarian invaders.

But I did have some problems that Tigana that knock the book down a few notches (and if you’ve read Tigana, your mileage may vary, of course).

I felt that Kay was guilty a few times of telling instead of showing, a writing no-no. There are a few instances in which he tries to evoke sympathy for the despotic sorcerer-king Brandin by telling us that freedom fighters Devin and Alessan now saw him as a man, and not a monster. But that’s not effective. We should instinctively come to realize this in the text through observing his actions, and I never did. Kay wants the reader to feel some degree of sympathy for Brandin and I couldn’t muster any. What he did to Tigana and its ruler, Prince Valentin, was too despicable. I wanted him dead at every turn.

I also thought Tigana had some extraneous page-padding side plots that could have been effectively excised. Also, the ending felt rushed. Right around page 610 or so (Tigana checks in at a hefty 672 pages) I was actively worrying whether Kay could adequately wrap things up, or whether he was setting me up for a cleverly hidden sequel. Tigana does have a conclusive ending, but it didn’t occur to my satisfaction and felt rather abrupt.

Tigana also contained a few too many characters for my liking and despite Kay’s best efforts, some of its personages are rather one dimensional. For example, the sorcerer-king Alberico never breaks the mold of a transparent bad guy, something that the rest of the novel seeks to avoid (and generally does).

But in the end Tigana succeeds not as a character-driven novel, nor as a compelling plot-driven page-turner, but rather as an exploration of themes like memory and identity, and love and vengeance, and their opposition. Memory is integral to self-identification, but Tigana also teaches us that an inability to break with the past is a dangerous thing. Without revealing any spoilers, there’s a horrific twist at the end of Tigana, that, revealed in full, could have resulted in a further continuation of a bitter, destructive war. But the one man who knows the truth keeps it in his heart in order to spare the future.

Likewise love, often portrayed simplistically as something we all need and the great healer, has its limitations. Dianora's love for Brandin for instance can be seen as corruptive and a cause of betrayal to the larger good:

She knew Brandin better than anyone alive; it had been necessary, in order to survive, especially in the beginning, in order to say and do the right things in a mortally dangerous place. Then as the years slipped by necessity had somehow been alchemized into something else. Into love, actually, bitterly hard as that had been to acknowledge. She had come here to kill, with the twin snakes of memory and hatred in her heart. Instead, she had ended up understanding him better than anyone in the world because there was no one else who mattered half so much.

Says Kay in an afterward:

These are ambitious elements for what was always meant to be a romantic adventure. They intimidated me as they began to emerge, even recording them now I find myself shaking my head. But beneath them all lies the idea of using the fantasy genre in just this way: letting the universality of fantasy - of once upon a time - allow escapist fiction to be more than just that, to also bring us home.

Some of these ambitious elements work and some fail, but I credit GKK for attempting them. They make Tigana an important touchstone in fantasy literature, a novel that’s dares to stretch its boundaries. Overall Tigana was a nice change of pace for me; I wouldn’t want to read a steady stream of similar works, but it is nice to see an example of what a skilled writer can accomplish in a too-frequently dismissed genre.


Anonymous said...

Good review. I like Tigana, especially it's treatment of the consequences of what would be in D&D terms - high level magic. In my opinion it's better than any single GRR Martin novel but I do agree that Kay does tell rather than show at times. I think the ending is spot on, you don't get the Hollywood resolution.

Wickedmurph said...

Most of my friends are big Tigana fans, but I've always been more partial to A Song for Arbonne and Lions of Al Rassan. Tigana was a great, sad story, but I also thought the ending was rushed, and many of the side plots didn't add anything to the overall story.

Plus, I didn't really identify with the "heroes" as much as I did, say, Blaise of Gorhaut or Rodrigo Belmonte. Both those books had similar elements of romance and tragedy, but pulled things together in a stronger fashion than Tigana.

Still, Tigana in many ways is a quintessential GGK book, which defined "literary" fantasy for at least a decade. If I want to introduce a non-fantasy reader to the genre, it's usually high on my recommendation list.

Brian Murphy said...

Thanks for the comments guys. I enjoyed Tigana a lot, more than the Fionavar Tapestry, and would certainly seek out other GGK works (in fact, I have The Last Light of the Sun sitting on my bookshelf, unread).

Good point about the magic, Geordie. I've always liked magic that is powerful but draining on the user and dangerous to use. It makes it much more interesting and also avoids of the problem of streets lit by continual light spells and the like.

Lagomorph Rex said...

I've only read "Last light of the sun" from him. I found parts of it to be very good but parts of it excruciatingly slow. I really would like to read more of his work, but It's just not really anything I come across that often at the used book stores I frequent.

I suppose he's just one of those authors I'll have to break down and buy new.

He does however have my vote should Tolkien enterprises ever opt to contract out for a posthumous collaborator to finish any unfinished stuff.. GGK ranks among a very small elite who I feel could actually play in the middle earth sandbox and not make a hash of it.. the others are Gene Wolfe, Ursula K. Leguin and Terry Pratchett...

Eric D. Lehman said...

Haven't read this one, just the Fionavar Tapestry, many moons ago. My memory is that it was very uneven - moments of great beauty and sorrow combined with ridiculous cliches. Sounds like Tigana might be a little better than that, and it's now on my (very extensive) list.

Brian Murphy said...

Funny you should say that, Lagomorph. You may or may not know that GKK collaborated with Christopher Tolkien to produce The Silmarillion. So yeah, he'd make a great fit. I just don't know how much unpublished material is left, after 12 volumes of The History of Middle-earth, The Children of Hurin, and The Legend of Sigurd and Gudrun.

Eric: I thought it was better, and a very good (though not great) fantasy novel.

Lagomorph Rex said...

Oh yes I'm certainly familiar with that factoid. GGK was actually recently mentioned by Simon Tolkien in an interview.. It should be interesting (or alarming) to see what will happen when Christopher's Iron Grip on the material ceases.. I guess what I'm saying is.. will the grandchildren begin looking to start making as much cash from it as possible... or will they maintain the status quo.

I also seem to remember reading that at some point in the 80's there may or may not have been floated an idea of turning some of the extremely summarized "3rd age" stuff into pastiches.. Such as the Hobbit Archers and Prince Eanor, and what not..

Dennis Mckeirnan's Iron Tower book is suspiciously close to it.. And came out right about the right time..