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Book Review: Tigana

2012 October 20
tags: ,
by pam artiaga

TiganaTigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Right after finishing this book, the only words I could come up with to describe it were: “Wow! Holy f*cking wow!” Indeed, those words were my constant refrain throughout the whole story. I’ll try to be more coherent here, but I know that no review could really do justice to how brilliant this novel is.


A new favorite

On the front cover of the 10th anniversary edition of this book, there is a review by another author that says, “One of the best fantasy novels I have read”. I won’t hesitate to echo that statement, and I don’t mean that lightly. That’s not just me giving a shallow, run-of-the-mill one-line review. Let me explain further….

I have three favorite book series: Harry Potter, Abhorsen, and His Dark Materials. In my own “Best Books” list, they occupy the first, second, and third place. No books occupy the fourth, fifth, or sixth places because, in my opinion, no other novel or book series could ever hold a candle to how brilliant these three stories are. The closest a book or series has ever come to my top three is probably at the eighth place. I was quite convinced that this arrangement of my “Top Books” list would never change. Until Tigana, that is.

I honestly never believed it would happen, but Tigana has broken my exclusive group of “Top Three Books” and turned it into four.


The World of Tigana

Tigana tells the story of an oppressed land ravaged by two tyrants and how that land was reclaimed by its people. It is what I would call an “epic-type fantasy”, in the same vein as Lord of the Rings or Belgariad or The Sword of Truth. But one of the things that sets it apart from all the other epic/quest-type fantasy novels I have read is its parallels to the real world. One could argue that the other three books I mentioned also have their parallels to our world, but only in the general struggle of good versus evil. Tigana, on the other hand, is very spot on in its description of politics, particularly the politics of war, and in the history of a nation.

Tigana shows the role of religion in a society, why governments, even those — or maybe particularly those — of tyrants, leave the clergy to themselves, and how undeserved that kind of power is. It shows the role of music in rebellion, how it can be used to rouse people into fighting for their freedom. It shows how the moments that are recorded in history, that are passed on as legends, are only a small part of the story that led to them. It shows — and this is one of the main themes of the book — the importance of identity to the people of a nation.

In his afterword, Guy Gavriel Kay stated that he meant to weave together a story about an imaginary land that reflects real issues of war and politics in our world. In that respect, I think he succeeded greatly. But that is not what makes this book great.

As I always say, no book, no matter how eloquent the words or how fascinating the setting, could be considered great if its characters don’t make an impression on the reader. Tigana does not lack in those kinds of characters.


Heroes and Villains

On the whole, Tigana is a story about an oppressed land and the quest to free it. In that way, it is just like any other epic/quest-type fantasy book or series. But unlike other epic fantasies, it places equal importance on the development of the characters as it does on the setting and the plot.

Tigana, though a story of a land, is told through the eyes of its people, reflecting the struggles of individual characters to the struggle of the land. These characters have depths and complexities and ambiguities very rarely — perhaps never — seen in other epic fantasies.

The two main antagonists are not simply evil monsters who seek to bring the whole world under their rule — something all too common in high fantasies such as Lord of the Rings, Belgariad, and even, I hate to say this, Harry Potter. The villains in Tigana are real people with real aims and though Alberico from Barbadior is driven by greed — as a lot of tyrants are — Brandin of Ygrath is an honorable person whose much-too-fierce passion drove him to the evils he committed.

The protagonists’ inner conflicts are not simply those of people thrust into the middle of great events. Their struggles can also be seen in people leading normal lives, and because of this they are more relatable than the characters of other epic fantasies. Devin feels like an outsider, always out of his depth, but he tries his best to come to terms with what is going on around him. Catriana, my favorite, is headstrong, brave, and impetuous, but she is also full of insecurities and we see these two sides of her drive almost every one of her actions and decisions. Baerd gives a solid presence, sure of himself and almost unflappable, but that self-possession is hard-earned through a heartbreaking past. Dianora is torn between her love for one man and her love for a nation, and one can’t begrudge her either of those loves or indeed her final choice. Alessan, the leader, the one with a hero’s heart, is hard to understand as most heroes are. He carries the greatest burden in their fight for freedom, and so his focus is concentrated only on that struggle, but in the end we see him realize that there are other things equally important to this fight. And halfway through the story, one of them commits a great wrong — not simply a mistake but a conscious decision, and one of the worst things I’ve ever known a protagonist of a story to have done — showing that just as the villain can be a decent man, the heroes can also commit grave wrongs.

This almost matchless characterization does not stop at the inner struggles of each character. It also extends to the relationships of these characters with each other. From the camaraderie between Baerd and Alessan, forged through a long and shared struggle, to Devin and Catriana’s newer and grudging friendship; from Rovigo’s happy family, particularly his relationship with his first born Alais, to the broken family of the dead sculptor Saevar; from the tyrant Brandin’s love affair with his top mistress, to the very subtle courtship of the couple who would replace their reign — these relationships are cultivated so expertly that every action and interaction between these characters are very believable and, in fact, beautiful.

On the women

This is actually just a small and tangential issue in the book, but it is something of importance to me. Halfway through the story, something is mentioned several times in passing that made me quite indignant for women rulers. Because of it, I doubted the author’s respect in women. But one chapter later, I realized that the two strongest characters in the book, not just two of the strongest but the two strongest — Dianora and Catriana — are both women. And it’s not just them but also, among others, Alienor in the safe haven of her castle, Elena from a small and powerless village, and even — or perhaps especially — Alais with her innocence and quiet courage. Tigana is full of strong female characters and it doesn’t shy away from illustrating the struggles of women in a male-dominated society, not just simply in the fight for freedom but in almost all aspects of life. That, among other things, puts it way, way above other epic fantasies I have read.


The Stuff of a Stunning Story

Tigana is the story of a world told through the struggles of its people. And it is this marriage of individual conflict with the strife in an oppressed land, and of an imaginary place with the common political issues of our world that makes it one of the best books — fantasy or not — ever written.

Someone said in another review that Tigana is a stunning novel. I couldn’t think of a better word than that. After reading this book I was, quite honestly, thoroughly and properly stunned at how good — how absolutely brilliant — it is.

As someone who has read their fair share of epic fantasies, I will dare to say this: You haven’t read all the truly epic fantasy stories if you haven’t read Tigana.


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