Wednesday, June 03, 2009

"Let your memory be like a blade in my soul."

Tigana was Guy Gavriel Kay's fourth novel published, and the first after the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. It stands with a number of marked differences from Fionavar, pointing the way toward themes and a general approach to fantasy that would dominate GGK's work for the next six novels, until Ysabel. (Time will tell whether Ysabel represents a momentary diversion or a whole new direction for GGK.) With Tigana we get not a series novel but a stand-alone work that focuses on the political goings-on in a fantasy domain that is nevertheless based closely on a real locale, the better for GGK to examine historical themes and events without being constrained to observing the outcomes of history too precisely. Here, GGK delves into the fantastical history of a fictional analogue of Renaissance Italy.

As the book opens, we find ourselves enmeshed in the politics of the peninsula of The Palm, a roughly hand-shaped peninsula that is divided into a number of smaller duchies and principalities, many of which look upon the others with suspicion. Each of the kingdoms owes allegiance to one of two tyrants, both wizards: Alberico and Brandin. Alberico is an extremely harsh dictator, killing any messenger who brings him bad news and responding to acts of insurrection with the random executions of dozens of people. (His preferred method of execution, "death-wheeling", is never described, but its brutality can be inferred from afar). The other tyrant, though, is the one who commands more attention, because of the events that have gone before, roughly twenty years prior to the main action of the book.

The title Tigana refers to one of the kingdoms of the Palm, the principality of Tigana, a land of very long and proud history whose royalty traces its lineage all the way back to the god and goddess they worship. However, in the time of the novel, Tigana is a forgotten land - literally forgotten. In the final battle of the war in which Brandin took control, his son was killed; and in his grief, Brandin used his powers of wizardry to call the worst curse he could think of down upon the whole of Tigana. He strips the land of its name. Only those who are native to Tigana remember it, but anyone else not only forgets it, but they can't even hear the name "Tigana" when spoken. Brandin insures that Tigana itself will die out completely once all of her native sons and daughters are dead, a generation hence. Working against this curse is the exiled Prince of Tigana, Alessan, and a band of fellow natives of Tigana he recruits throughout his travels as a wandering musician. His plan is to engineer a war between Brandin and Alberico, knowing that to destroy one tyrant whilst the other lives is to allow that other to rush in and fill the power void. What ensues is an amazing story of war, patriotism, revolution, court politics, magic, the morality of adhering to causes in the face of complete destruction, and all through that, love.

What makes Tigana such an effective novel is, in addition to GGK's gifts for language and character, the moral ambiguity he conveys throughout. It would be easy enough to cast both tyrants as completely evil and Prince Alessan and his cohorts as pure and good, but GGK isn't content to do this, and it is this – his willingness to present heroes as partly villains and villains as partly heroic – that tends to elevate his novels above many others. Alessan does things in the course of the book that cast question on his goals and his devotion to them; we wonder, at many junctures, if he is really doing the right thing in striving so hard to bring Tigana back into the world. At one point, he uses his own magical power as a Prince of Tigana to bind a free wizard to him, literally enslaving the man; the wizard, Erlein di Senzio, bitterly points out that things in the Palm have actually been much better since Alberico took over. There are no easy answers in Tigana.

Moreover, while Alberico himself is depicted as a sadistic and cruel lout, Brandin is portrayed with a startlingly high degree of sympathy for a dictator in a fantasy novel. Brandin's grief for his son is very real, as his love for his wife, Dianora. This kind of thing makes Tigana a very refreshing read: I find myself not entirely rooting for Alessan, nor did I find myself rooting against Brandin. The eventual moment of reckoning, when it comes, is partially satisfying and partially bittersweet and partially very sad. Tigana is a book where some villains get what they deserve, while others don't deserve what they get.

Tigana was the first GGK novel I read all the way through, way back in fall of 1993. I had previously started, but not finished, A Song for Arbonne. (I don't recall why I didn't finish that one, except that it wasn't because I wasn't enjoying it. Even while reading it I made a mental note to get back to this one.) I last re-read Tigana in 1999 or 2000, if memory serves; it had been a while, so long, in fact, that I was happy to discover that some of my earlier preconceptions about the book no longer held. I liked certain characters more than I recalled liking them before (Dianora chief among them), but I was again struck by what I've always felt is a problem with the book's pacing. GGK's books never stick to a single point-of-view the whole way through; instead, he switches back and forth among fairly large casts of characters. With Tigana, I have always felt as though he didn't quite have the kinks worked out of this particular approach, as entire sections of the book become engrossing, only to bring on a switch to another person's POV. What's more is that the early part of Dianora's part of the tale is given over to a long section of backstory. It's basically an infodump. Now, GGK is a far superior writer to, say, David Weber, to name a writer who is famously prone to disastrously momentum-killing infodumps, so when GGK does this, it's not fatal to the book. But it is noticeable.

Another facet of GGK's books that is always noticeable is that they rarely end with a full-stop. He is superb at leaving that lingering sense that life does go on for the characters, even if we can't follow along and see what that life entails. I won't spoil it here, for those who haven't read it and might, but the device he uses to end the novel is inspired, and it's generated some serious discussion on nearly every forum on which I've seen this book discussed. The other thing that always stands out for real GGK fans are the tiny references he includes in all of his books to Fionavar; remember, Fionavar is the first of all worlds, so each of his novels to come along after that reflects this in some tiny way. It's a tradition that actually started with Tigana, the first of his books after the trilogy.

Tigana is a wonderful, superb book, and it's a testament to GGK, I think, to say that it's never been my favorite book of his. But on this re-read, I found myself appreciating it a great deal more.

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