Monday, December 7, 2015

Tigana Book Review

by The Wanderer

Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Roc
Genre: Epic Fantasy
Series: Standalone
Pages: 676

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A stand-alone fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay, the story of Tigana centers around a small displaced group of people who try to free their peninsula from the the harsh rule of two opposing sorcerers. With limited amounts of magic and elevated well written prose, Tigana is more like a historical fiction novel with a heavy Italian flavor, than a conventional fantasy book.  At its heart though, it is a story about characters making morally complex decisions who struggle with deep inner personal conflicts. These conflicts lead to some great character creations.

Unfortunately, Tigana also has its share of characters that don’t work, and seem to serve very little purpose to the story’s themes or plot.  Other times protagonist characters lack a likeable personality, making it difficult to read their portions of the book or sympathize with them.  Character emotions have a particular tendency to feel forced. Conceptually, Tigana is brilliant, and it does have some unconventional plot devices, but sometimes unconventionality leads the story astray, especially when it comes to developing romantic relationships. It’s flaws like this that can make this book very frustrating.

Tigana is a book with great potential.  It’s looking to make a maximum impact, it’s looking to hit a home run with readers, but despite going far with its concept, it falls short of the greatness it seemed destined to promise.

Perhaps the most brilliant part of Tigana is the concept the story is set around.  Twenty years prior to the major events that enfold in the book, the Peninsula of the Palm a territory that is divided into nine provinces that are constantly fighting amongst themselves, are simultaneous invaded by two sorcerers leading two opposing invading armies.

Alberico, a warlord, leads the Barbadian army and takes four of the nine provinces.  Opposing him is Brandin of Ygrath who is a king from a distant land and also takes four provinces.  Alberico wishes to conquer the peninsula in order satisfy his ambition, while Brandin wishes to conquer the peninsula for his son, Stevan, who is helping him with the war.  Brandin sends Stevan to conquer the remaining Palm territories while Brandin prepares to fight Alberico for control of the province.  Brandin’s plot for domination is thwarted when Stevan is killed in Tigana the most resilient of the Palm’s provinces.

Instead of fighting Alberico, Brandin heads back to Tigana to punish the province for murdering his son.  He puts a curse on the land that allows all people born in Tigana to hear it’s name, but the curse allows no one else living outside Tigana to hear it, thus erasing the existence and culture of the place from everyone’s memory.  An uneasy truce is written between Alberico and Brandin, and the surviving people fromTigana largely scatter across the other remaining provinces.  Twenty years later the remaining people from Tigana begin to implement their plan of revenge on Brandin and Alberico for conquering their land.

Tigana largely focuses on two groups of people from Tigana.  The first is the surviving Prince of Tigana Alessan and his companions Devin, Baerd, Catriana, Rovigo, Sandre, and Erlein. These characters are looking to kill Brandin in order to break his curse upon the peninsula.  They also plan to kill Alberico because he would simply just conquer Brandin’s territory once he were killed. It’s implied he would be a more oppressive ruler than Brandin. The narrative frequently switches between these characters, but it primarily focuses on Devin.

The second group of people Tigana focuses on is Dianora, who is one of Brandin’s saishan (a harlot), Brandin himself, and her loyal servant Scelto.  Dianora has infiltrated Bradin’s ranks in order to assassinate him. However she has started to fall in love with Brandin, and is conflicted between breaking the curse or killing someone she loves.

The strength of Tigana’s story is the morally complex decisions that must be faced by its characters.  Most of the characters, even the ones that aren’t likeable, have to make difficult lose-lose types of decisions.  Morally it feels clear that what Alessan and his company want to do is correct, but the question that keeps coming up is, will the end result of destroying these two dictators improve everyone’s life?

On the surface when  first reading the book, the apparent answer is yes.  But as the story progresses this becomes less and less the case.  This is especially true of Brandin, who has committed the most appalling crimes in the book, but is also a very sympathetic villain.  Dianora largely helps with making Brandin come across as sympathetic and this makes him a great character.  Dianora’s internal conflict creates the most tension and emotional distress for readers with her doomed love styled story arc.  Her past is also fascinating. The Dianora and Brandin portion of the book features the book’s strongest material.

The weaker story arc belongs to Devin and Alessan.  These two characters conclude the first part of this book in a very powerful segment, but it’s all downhill from there, at least until the final portions of the book.  Devin could be argued as the primary protagonist of the story.  Unfortunately, as a likeable character he struggles.  He offers no special value in the quest to restore Tigana’s name, as a matter of fact the only special skill he seems to have is a strong ability to pick locks. His most irritating quality as a character is his overwrought sentimentality which comes across as artificial, and unfortunately is heaped on readers frequently.

As a matter of fact most of the characters in Alessan’s group are unlikeable.  Alessan is in an interesting situation, but as a character that I’m supposed to like, I don’t.  He keeps important information from his close associates for no good reason and again like Devin, although to a much lesser extent, he comes across as emotionally fake.  Rovigo is a character that is pointless and brings nothing to the story other than a boat, Erlein ends up being placed in the story as philosophical debate point against Alessan about the true nature of freedom, and Catriana is placed in the story to create romantic tension for the other male characters.  Baerd is the only semi-likeable character in this group, and this is largely due to his work with the Night-Walkers, and when he thinks about his past relationship with his sister.

The large points of Tigana’s plot may seem fairly predictable, but the smaller ones certainly aren’t.  A lot of Tigana plays against traditional fantasy and storytelling conventions.  The ending of the book greatly benefits from this.  The unconventionality though causes some issues too, especially in regards to the romantic pairings in the book.  Character romantic pairings in a book of this length are usually established with in the first third of the book.  In what appears to be an attempt to break that conventional standard, Kay switches the should be romantic pairings, and instead the book forces readers to undergo some quick and immediate declarations of love.  Although these characters that do declare their love for one another have been traveling together for awhile, their love for each other feels forced.

Tigana is brilliant in concept, but at times struggles with authentic emotions and likeable characters.  It’s written using elevated prose, which is unusual for the genre, but I didn’t find this off-putting (I know people that would though).  As a stand-alone epic novel, Tigana accomplishes a lot in few pages, or at least few pages by the fantasy genre’s standards.  The book’s not perfect, but by all means it isn’t terrible either.

Score: 8.6

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