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Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay, Roc, 1990, 673 pp.

Tigana is Guy Gavriel Kay's fourth book, after the Fionavar trilogy, and it's with this book that Kay finds the first full measure of his unique voice. Tigana features a wealth of detail, everything from religion to politics to warfare to culture to interpersonal relationships, all in a setting analogous to medieval Italy. The list of writing traits mastered in Tigana also includes pain, which Kay has never shied away from. Writers can often be judged by the way they deploy violence in the service of their stories; the worst melodrama is often poorly written in this specific regard. Kay has no worries in this department: he can wrench blood from the stoniest-hearted characters, and he's never afraid to end on a more complex note than happily ever after (for either protagonist or antagonist).

Tigana takes place on a peninsula known as the Palm. The peninsula has been overrun by two conquering armies, the east by the Barbadian sorcerer Alberico and the west by the Ygrathen king and sorcerer Brandin. Each invader has conquered four provinces, with the ninth province of the Palm remaining neutral. The Prologue begins with events on the western side of the Palm, as Brandin is on the verge of vanquishing Tigana, the last province to show resistance. The Prince of Tigana succeeded in killing Brandin's son and heir in a previous battle, and in revenge Brandin destroys most of the province and casts a dreadful curse on its people, a curse which makes the book resonate with many countries in the real world. I'll discuss that further.

The main plot of the book picks up the story twenty years later. The two sorcerer-invaders have held to a stalemate, and the twenty years of that stalemate have meant heavy repression in the lives of the conquered peoples. But rumblings of change are building. A small band of resistance gathers around the charismatic figure of Alessan, who turns out to be the son of the previous Prince of Tigana. Alessan is committed to a greater course of action than revenge against Brandin; so as to give advantage to neither sorcerer, he wants to remove both from the Palm at once. What an enormous task! Alessan's plans are subtle, so the book feels much different than the typical revenge storyline, and his group is small, so the climax is not a battlefield between good and evil.

Kay gives Tigana more of its own unique feel by alternating Alessan's perspective with that of a woman named Dianora. Dianora's story begins with Part Two of the book, about 150 pages in, and again Kay works with familiar material to create something new and moving. Dianora was a survivor of the destruction of Tigana and she vowed to kill Brandin personally. By some maneuvering, she became a member of Brandin's saishan (or harem), but her first moment alone with him passed without violence, as did many others. By the time of Tigana, she is Brandin's most trusted friend and lover. Kay is canny enough to give Dianora a better role than this woman-betrayed-by-her-body stereotype seems to indicate.

Kay creates a large cast of characters, all of which remain distinct in the mind. Especially distinct are Alessan and his band of adventurers: Baerd, Catriana, Devin, the old Duke Sandre, and later the hedge wizard Erlein. Baerd is the standby of such fantasy stories -- the overly competent warrior who has to work out some emotional issues to resolve his own character arc, but his pain is always palpable and real. Catriana and Devin are both younger, skilled musically, and passionate about the fight for freedom. The manner of the Duke's entry to the band makes up most of Part One of the book and is a miniature masterpiece. The perspective of Alessan and his band is balanced by the time spent with Dianora. Dianora is allotted a harsh measure of the pain found in the book, as she tries to find a way between the dictates of her heart and her history, and at first glance, the depiction of Dianora seems problematic. However, the situation is not that simple. Yes, the semi-historical setting of Tigana uses the typical patriarchal, hetero-normative power structure of fantasy, unlike the works of someone like Tanya Huff, whose fantasies wipe the slate clean of such things. Yes, the structure is there, but Kay seems to posit Dianora's anguish as a result of such power inequalities. Kay does not insert a tract; rather the commentary is implied, giving the book both a superficial likeness to other, less thoughtful fantasy, and a lasting significance when the difference is considered.

Kay's world-building in Tigana is impeccable. History, religion, and names all have the feeling of tangible, lived-in reality (another signifier, like the situated use of violence, that this is quality fantasy). Some of the solidity of the writing comes from the analogue to Italian history, and the use of Italianate names and pronunciation. Kay uses this to overcome the drawbacks of the standard fantasy fare that he is dealing with, like the maps and the roadside inns and the mental battle between sorcerers. And then there is the matter of the famous curse set on the people of Tigana. This curse actually affects everyone on the Palm, and it requires a tremendous amount of power to sustain: the very name of Tigana has been wiped from the memory of all inhabitants of the Palm, and it cannot even be spoken if remembered. This makes Tigana a fairly clear analogy (although not allegory) for the ways in which totalitarian countries in our time have tried to prevent their citizens from expressing certain thoughts. With fear or with magic, the powerful try to control the powerless, and Kay shows both the cost and the recompense in one case of resistance. Tigana, in this sense, is inspiring, as the best fiction can be.

The quality of Kay's writing helps the material transcend its conventional roots -- Tigana is worth perusing no matter your reading preference.

First posted: September 25, 2000; Last modified: March 20, 2004

Copyright © 2000-2004 by James Schellenberg (

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