A land without its name: a review of Tigana

Tigana

They don’t seem like conquerers … They didn’t seem like men in the midst of a triumph. They just looked tired, as at the end of a very long journey.

I haven’t sat down and read some good, thick fantasy in a while. Tigana was an excellent homecoming — rich in lore without being too fanciful, and hundreds of pages long without being indulgent.

Summarizing Tigana is difficult without revealing the heart of it, and perhaps that’s what gives Guy Gavriel Kay’s language, his story, its magic: Two tyrants, both sorcerers, are vying for domination of the world, but those who have been wronged by them — who have fallen from the grace of their beloved Tigana, a land now cursed so that none can hear its name except those born there (or with magic in their blood) — are gathering together to kill not only he who cast the spell but the other tyrant as well, so that neither shall rule.

This mutinous group, led by the dethroned prince of Tigana, does more sneaking and meddling than war-making, gathering their forces in secret and manipulating the tyrants from afar. Felling one tyrant is difficult enough, so I was eager to see how Kay would go about having them do away with two in a plausible, believable way. I wasn’t disappointed.

The novel isn’t riveting, but it is deeply enjoyable in that simmering old way of classic fantasy. Read the language carefully, and you can appreciate the fine craftsmanship that Kay put into it. Tigana is full of lengthy chapters but never lingers on one perspective for too long a time; it keeps the tension taut by introducing strange new characters and interweaving them into the plot, mounting ever higher the grand and fragile house of cards that Kay is building, all centered around the tyrant Brandin who cursed Tigana and the future of the lands.

The characters surprise you. One who stands for all that is hate and vengeance becomes a symbol of good and redemption; another who vows to destroy her enemy comes to love him. Moreover, a controversial scene in the opening chapters left me uncertain of my feelings about one of the central protagonists and caused me to wonder whether the author was mistreating another character for the sake of scandal, but Kay never let that event tarnish the respectability of either or let it govern their fates.

I only thought one character was done injustice: the tyrant Alberico, who is little more than a two-dimensional, exaggerated villain whose ill deeds and manner lack the complexities of the fellow tyrant Brandin’s.

The others, despite their role in the story — a hindrance or a help to the freeing of Tigana — I cared for equally. The ending is bittersweet: both happy and tragic, with a reveal of a secret that was brilliantly concealed and saved for the final moments. The story ends how you suppose it will, but not how you hoped or predicted.

Kay weaves together many small stories, consequential or seemingly trivial, without losing sight of their place in the conflict that’s brewing or forgetting to convey the sense of time it took for it all to come together — years and years, with the ache of centuries and an unmistakable weariness hanging on each word.

The magic here is old, and trembling, and monstrous. It’s used carefully, for fear of repercussion, which always comes. And it’s not restricted to one form but to many: to wizards who hide their power to save their life, to those who walk in a dream realm at night, to those who heal and others who torment and are crippled by their own sorcery.

That magic is never quite enough to fill you. Tigana leaves you yearning.

Grade: A

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