A Review, SPOILERS galore. Considered by many as revolutionary in epic fantasy storytelling, here's my take on Kay's TIGANA (1990) which I read some time back.
9/10, if you teach a literature class, and you want your students to write an essay for purely instructional purposes.
If you were ever to create Top-10 list of fantasy novels replete with emotional angst, misery and malaise, you must include Kay's TIGANA in this list. I found TIGANA so unsatisfying, so uninspiring, so emotionally draining, I would be reluctant to pick up another Kay novel ever again. There's a story here, but it isn't meant to entertain. Its central intent? To teach, to share wisdom. Like many others, I have to finish a book I start, and with TIGANA, I felt as if I was being forced to read this book so I can write an essay for a class way back in high school or college. I was begging for some Terry-Goodkind preaching after this novel.
Even not having read Kay's afterword, the reader can sense there's some themes, some lessons, that Kay wants to ascribe to the reader. The didactic prose of the book drips into the farthest recesses of your mind while you're reading this.
Clearly, Kay wanted to teach some lessons in TIGANA, as he explains in the afterword of his Tenth-Anniversary edition of TIGANA. Kay wanted to impart -- emotionally and spiritually and relentless in his prose, in his diction -- what it means to refuse letting the past be in the past. Through the binding between the Alessan and the wizard Erlein, Kay also wanted to teach what it means to use unwilling instruments (people) as tools in your quarrels, in order to raise questions to the legitimacy of the plight. This theme also takes root in Alessan's mother cursing his son on her deathbed for not doing anything about the past, at least not in her eyes. The one person - Dianora - who begins to conquer her past with a promise of love commits suicide by plunging into the water, because in the end, she could not escape her past, her history.
The other central theme Kay wants to drum out mercilessly: the duplicity, the ambiguity, and the divided loyalties of human nature. This is also best represented in Dianora's character, although there's traces of it in Alessan. Obviously, Kay wants to show the good in evil, and the evil in good in a genre, as he says, "tends not to work that way." Well thank you, Guy Gavriel Kay, for shedding some of my naivety, I happened to be waiting for you to do it.
I have to say I thoroughly enjoyed Kay's witty humor and political intrigue. In the bar scenes, whether in the beginning in The Paelion, or towards the end, in the inn Solinghi. When Kay isn't edifying us and torturing us with emotional angst, he's certainly readable.
The prose isn't bad, though the messages very repetitive at times. The opening 100 pages or so were, for the most part, fun, witty and full of political intrigue. Then, Kay does a 180 and brings to home what he really wants to talk about when Dianora's perspective starts appearing in waves and waves. Kay often times repeats things over and over again just to fill the pages, about Devin's cursed memory (again and again), about Devin thinking about Alessan's burdens (again and again), about Dianora's life line leading to this moment, to this path (again and again and again in different words). Furthermore, although I enjoy worldbuilding, Kay takes worldbuilding to insufferable heights. For a stand-alone ~650-page epic fantasy novel, Kay is explaining about the history of this province or the history of that ritual or the gods more than 500 pages into it! And it length! Unacceptable, if you ask me.
Also, George R.R. Martin (GRRM) does this too, but I find it acutely unreadable the way Kay leaves the import of the action off-screen. For example, when Dianora returns to Brandin after seeing a riselka for her path made clear, a humanoid creature with green hair and blue veins, Brandin divulges his plans. The reader never hears about the plans, and Kay leaves words to the effect that Dianora listened and cried and listened. Brandin's plans are divulged much later when Alessan, Erlein and Devin visit Alessan's dying mother at Eanna's Sanctuary (one of the goddesses in the Triad of TIGANA).
Some 20 years ago, a very powerful sorcerer - Brandin - conquers the western provinces one by one in a peninsula called the Palm. One of the last provinces to fall - proud Tigana - fought back mightily as Prince Valentin of Tigana slays Brandin's beloved son, his youngest son. Brandin brings the absolute and titanic wrath of his awesome power down upon Tigana, decimating everything and killing most everyone in the province. With his sorcery, Brandin also strips the name Tigana from everyone in the Palm not born in Tigana before its fall, calling the province Lower Corte thenceforth. This expropriation of the name Tigana from the Palm serves as the catalyst and underlying impetus of the entire story. I was very unmoved by this underlying energy which drives the characters we read about.
In the beginning we read about the Duke Sandre staging his own death so as to bring together enemies of another sorcerer Tyrant, this time from the eastern Palm, a sorcerer called Alberico, weaker than Brandin. The Duke's plot goes awry when he's betrayed by one of his grandsons, resulting in the death of everyone from his family and other noble families in the Duke's province Astibar. Here we also meet one of the two main perspectives comprising the bulk of the story, our talented, young 19 year-old singer, Devin. Devin serves one purpose and one alone in Kay's story: Devin is our eyes and ears into Alessan, Prince Valentin's youngest son who manages to escape Brandin's carnage of Tigana. Alessan is older now, in his mid-30s and has made it his life-long mission to excavate both Tyrants from the Palm, Brandin from the western palm and Alberico from the eastern palm. In this singular goal, Alessan and Baerd (Dianora's brother) are building contacts throughout the eastern Palm sympathetic to Alessan's cause and against both Alberico and Brandin and everything the tyrants represent.
Returning to Devin, he is a gifted singer touring in the eastern palm, and he discovers he was born in Tigana right before it was destroyed. While most cannot say or hear the name Tigana because of Brandin's magic, those born in Tigana before the destruction can say and hear the name Tigana. My first thought: so Brandin has so much power, but can't vanquish the name Tigana from everyone, including those born in Tigana before the destruction? I guess we wouldn't have a story otherwise. In any case, Alessan does remember the name, as does others born there before Tigana's fall, people like Devin and Baerd and Catriana.
I have many problems with focusing the story on Alessan's side from Devin's perspective. First, I hate it when authors use insignificant characters of no import or impact simply to magnify the mysticism, the intrigue and power of another character. Devin is bewitched by Alessan and Alessan's cause and to return Tigana's name to the hearts and minds of everyone in the Palm, expunging the two tyrant sorcerers in the process. Kay relentlessly makes Devin oooh and aaaah at everything Alessan says and does, as Devin incessantly notes the burdens Alessan has to deal with. Devin is not only bewitched by Alessan, but Devin is constantly thinking what Alessan may be thinking at a certain time! Since Alessan is the last surviving heir of Tigana and obviously very significant, why not just focus on Alessan's perspective?!? Why force the story from Devin's perspective? Devin does little to add to the story (and Alessan's cause) on his own merit, except possibly for Kay to show us that Devin his plagued with an impeccable memory. Devin's memory is his curse, Kay tells us (many times in the beginning). Again, getting back to Kay's lesson of letting the past be in the past.
I believe one of the biggest reasons to read speculative, escapist fiction is to read about characters that go above and beyond the normal, the average. That can do more, that are more. Devin is nothing if not ordinary through every fiber of his being, there is nothing interesting about him, all the intrigue lies with the puppetmaster forcing everyone to dance to his pipes, Alessan. For all of Kay's beliefs in find the good in the evil and the evil in the bad, what happened to letting us inside the head of powerful characters, or a puppetmaster like Alessan? Especially in this genre. Devin is a character that's less than useless, other than to highlight Kay's history lesson.
For all of Devin's impeccable memory and intuition, Devin never really does catch on that Dianora is Baerd's sister. All of the hints are there for him in plain sight too. Before Devin passes out in a barn after severely injuring his leg, he hears of Baerd's childhood friend Nadoo ask about Dianora, and how 14-15 years ago, she disappeared. Then shortly thereafter, Devin and the reader consantly hears about this girl from Certando province brought to Brandin on one his Tribute ships for his harem. And how she almost started a war because Certando is one of Alberico's provinces, not Brandin's. Even when Devin sees her in person and hears more about her in Chiara when they visit the province Brandin holds court, he doesn't connect the dots. Please, for someone as cursed with memory as he's supposed to be, he sure does miss out on a lot of information. At one point, Alessan dismisses the Certando woman having the same name as Baerd's sister as coincidence. Even though the timing of when she was taken on the Tribute ship fits perfectly. For all the connections Alessan and Baerd gather in the 15-16 years throughout the Palm following Tigana's destruction, you're telling me they couldn't trace her? Or find this woman's name which bears the same name as Baerd's sister oddly interesting? The woman who almost started another war with the other Tyrant sorcerer when she was taken to Brandin's harem? Not even Devin's flawless memory can put together all the pieces here? I thought that was Devin's purpose? To absorb information and slowing connect the dots. Okay, I was mistaken Devin is _much_ less than useless, not just less than useless.
Which brings us to the other major perspective comprising the bulk of the story, Dianora. Dianora's heart-wrenching chapters and emotional angst represent the crux of the story and a key lesson Kay wants to teach us. I wouldn't exactly call Dianora's perspective fun, not by any stretch of the imagination. Dianora's character lies at the heart of Kay's story though, and easily eclipses other characters and other happenings. Easily. I would go insofar as to rename the title of this book to DIANORA instead of TIGANA. Because Dianora's inner turmoil even eclipses Alessan's cause to restore Tigana's name and drive the tyrant sorcerers out of the Palm.
Dianora is from Tigana, you see, 13 or 14 at the time Tigana falls to Brandin the Tyrant, and subsequently decimated. Dianora hears of her father's death, watches the glorius city of Tigana destroyed, people killed, her mother go insane, and her brother and friend Nadoo beaten. After her brother Baerd comes upon a riselka and leaves home to find Alessan, the last surviving heir to Tigana, Dianora watches the flames of a fire die but twinning snakes emerge in her heart - twins of memory for what she's seen and witnessed, and hatred for the man who did it, hatred for Brandin the sorcerer. After her brother Baerd leaves, Dianora makes it her life mission to kill Brandin in her own way. She grows into a very beautiful woman and at 19, she's captured on one of Brandin's Tribute Ships which wisks away women for Brandin's harem, his saisan, from his conquered provinces. Dianora is successful in getting taken away on one of these Tribute Ships given her astounding beauty.
As fate would have it however, Dianora falls in love with Brandin. The overwhelming love for this powerful man (Brandin) eventually subdues the twinning snakes of memory and hate in her heart. The same powerful man who conquered her home, destroyed her kingdom, and killed her father. She eventually hopes against all hope that she can live with this man, continue to love this man, and that at the same time, she can somehow restore Tigana's name. Oh and by the way, despite abducting women from his conquered provinces, cruelly torturing people in sickening ways, putting people to death on wheels, and laying Tigana to waste, Brandin isn't really a bad guy. In fact, Brandin is very affectionate, very compassionate. Over time, just as Dianora comes to love Brandin, so too does Brandin come to favor Dianora's wit and humor, so too does the reader receive a glimpse into Brandin's compassion, his good through Dianora's eyes.
Obviously, Kay wants to demonstrate some good in evil and the ambiguity of human nature, not the straight forward good vs. evil we often find in this genre. Further, Kay invites us to see how love in a character can help conquer their past.
Well that would be all well and good if Dianora wasn't so torturous to read. And the upshot of all of her pages? Love isn't enough. That's right, love isn't enough. Thank you and good night. I think a soap opera would be less torturous to watch than read about Dianora's emotional angst over her divided heart. For my part, I don't even see a contest. Kay doesn't really spend time on how Dianora came to love Brandin, only that it happened gradually over 15 years. We're spared of any love making scenes between Brandin and Dianora and there really aren't any scenes between the 2 which would constitute as "romantic." So given the text we have to go on, I'm just not compelled by this overwhelming love Dianora feels for Brandin. For my part, I would have killed Brandin long ago, but Kay points that may shift the balance of power in the Palm to Alberico, and we're led to believe that she's doing us a favor by loving Brandin and saving him from assassination attempts. At one point, Dianora is thinking in her mind to Brandin: LET GO, to something Brandin is saying. Obviously a plea to let go of the past and his hatred of Tigana for killing his beloved son, set Tigana's name free, so she can love him with her whole heart, not just half.
I have to address the Night Walker storyline which comes out of no where, and again reinforces Kay's lesson about letting the past be in the past. Apparently the Night Walkers are cultish group of people with magic, persecuted before the sorcerors conquered the Palm, and executed by the provinces of the Palm for following a religious orientation outside of the accepted the Triad. Baerd travels to another dimension with the Night Walkers to help defeat a nameless enemy - the Others - for a battle over the land, over soil and food. The whole chapter seemed like something from another dimension, which didn't really belong. Ironically enough, it is these same persecuted people of magic which help Alessan's assembled wizards against Brandin's powerful and overwhelming sorcery. That's right, there's a lesson in there. Let the past be in the past!
Kay classifies TIGANA as a romantic adventure, but I would call it anything but. Possibly a romantic tragedy read in a class to analyze, scrutinize and learn. But not simply to read. The most notable "romance" is that between Dianora and Brandin, but it is hardly adventurous. When Devin leaves Alienor after a vicious, but meaningless night of love making, he says something to that effect; that is, maybe we don't feel anything because we think this is all we deserve. The way Kay presents it, there's another lesson in there about sleeping around without any substance. As if our singer boy has stumbled upon some startling revelation for us all to take away. In a couple pages each, we're treated to sparks of romance between some other characters: Devin and Alais, Baerd and Elena, the Night Walker, and finally, between Alessan and Catriana. The final pairing I found very unsatisfying and incongruous, especially since we never receive a perspective from Alessan which would lead us to to the professed love Alessan claims for Catriana. Kay pairs them up but there's hardly any romance really or substance here to these supposed romances. If there wasn't any substance between Devin and Alienor in their feral sex, there certainly isn't any substance in the one page we see Devin kiss Alais towards the end. Substantive romance isn't what Kay is interested in anyway, at least not in TIGANA.
Unimaginate, average and otherwise torturous characters, lessons in every plot and story and an overabundance of worldbuilding. That just about sums up my experience of Kay's TIGANA.
Some concluding thoughts about the finale of TIGANA, with a plethora of magic all at once in a book that uses magic very subtly for the most part. Finally in the end, Brandin does let go of the past and his hatred of the province of Tigana which killed his beloved son. But by then, as Alessan notes from Devin's perspective, it is way too late. In the end, Brandin unleashes everything all the magical power he possesses to kill the rival tyrant sorcerer, Alberico, in a battle that Alessan deftly maneuvers to craft. After Brandin is fully spent, the magic which prevents anyone from hearing or saying Tigana is also released. Brandin also liberates control of his court fool, Rhun, who turns out to be Prince Valentin enslaved and tortured all these years by Brandin's hatred for killing his beloved son. Valentin promptly remembers who he is and kills and Brandin after Brandin is completely spent. Valentin is slain by Brandin's loyal guard, D'Eymon. D'Eymon, seeing how Brandin is killed, plunges the sword in his own body while Dianora promptly plunges into the water to drown after her love Brandin is killed.
There's supposed to be wedding between the new Prince of Tigana, Alessan, and Catriana. The End. I've read some unsatisfying endings, but this is right up there. I'm not sure I got anything out of this than torturous lesson I really didn't need.