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Retro Friday Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

DH is the one I have to thank for first introducing me to Guy Gavriel Kay's body of work. He was a fan of the Fionavar Tapestry and felt sure I would like them. And like them I did. So much so that you will no doubt be hearing more about them at some future Retro Friday date. But for this inaugural edition I felt myself gravitating toward Kay's slightly later work--Tigana. Originally published in 1990, Tigana is an epic romantic fantasy and was nominated for both the World Fantasy Award and the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award. First off, because I am an unabashed cover hound, a look at the changing cover art then and now:














Kay prefaces his story with the following shiver-inducing passage from Dante's Paradiso:
All that you held most dear you will put by
and leave behind you; and this is the arrow
the longbow of your exile first lets fly.
You will come to know how bitter as salt and stone
is the bread of others, how hard the way that goes
up and down stairs that never are your own.
The story takes place in the Peninsula of the Palm--a world based on medieval Italy. Like Italy of old, the Palm is divided up into nine city-states, or provinces, each with its own distinct flavor and character, yet each bound together through the music and art that runs through the veins of the inhabitants. The prologue opens on the eve of battle. The prince of one of the provinces is about to go forth on the morrow to meet the sorceror-king Brandin of Ygrath. Sure that he faces certain death, it is a brief, hushed scene, full of poignance and honor. The story then jumps forward a number of years to a troupe of musicians preparing to perform at the funeral of the Duke of Astibar. Devin d'Asoli, a gifted singer, and his tempestuous female counterpart Catriana d'Astibar are bickering as usual, while the piper Alessan and drummer Eghano tune their instruments and ready for the performance of their lives. As we follow this group of itinerant musicians, it becomes clear that the world has changed significantly. Brandin did indeed win the battle of the prologue, but he paid a high price. His eldest son died in the battle and, in his grief and rage, Brandin not only destroyed the province but utterly wiped away the merest memory of its existence. From that time forward, no one but the people born there could remember or even speak its name. The people of the Palm now live under the shadow of Brandin and his rival conqueror Alberico, both of whom are intent on destroying the other. But as we follow Devin and his friends it also becomes clear that not everyone is who they seem to be and that there is a slow but persistent rebellion growing, the likes of which the world has never seen.

First and foremost, Tigana is an absolute feat of storytelling. It hits every one of my requirements for epic fantasy by combining a fully realized world with nuanced characterization and language so lush you want to wrap yourself up in it. Music and magic form the backbone of the story and pave the way for a detailed and riveting exploration of the meaning of history and valor, right and wrong, and how and where they meet and interlock. In his afterword written for the tenth anniversary edition, Mr. Kay had this to say:
Tigana is in good part a novel about memory: the necessity of it, in cultural terms, and the dangers that come when it is too intense.
Truly this was my favorite aspect of the novel. The thread of cultural memory, how far a people can be pushed before they relinquish it, and what you might be willing to sacrifice to regain it. I loved the depth this thread gave the rest of the novel, but it helped that I fell almost immediately in love with the cast of characters as well. They're the kind of characters you just know are going to break your heart and you might as well be all in because you can also tell they're so worth it. The story bounces back and forth between the Palm and Brandin's home island of Chiara, with the result that the reader is given an unexpectedly intimate view of both the rebels and the tyrant. And neither are purely good or evil. My sympathies were exercised on behalf of both and so, though it is a beautiful read, it is also a painful one as both sides cannot win and it is hard to love or hate either unreservedly. Whenever I read Tigana I am at once in love and conflicted, consumed with near equal parts hope and despair. And when an author can elicit that complex an emotional response without making me feel manipulated, my hat comes off. It's a stunning tale. Recommended for fans of Jacqueline Carey and Patricia McKillip.

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Comments

  1. I was just having a huge conversation with my husband about cultural memory and the way in which cultures operate in diverse areas (like the part of NYC where I live).
    Sounds like an interesting read!

    ReplyDelete
  2. I've wanted to read this one forever. Why can't I get it bumped to the top!!!??

    I love your Retro Friday idea. Very fun.

    ReplyDelete
  3. Marie, what good timing! This book really is a surprisingly smooth blend of swashbuckling fantasy and exploration of memory and meaning.

    Suey, I'm glad you like it. I've been wanting to get to some older reads and this seemed to be as good a way as any to do it. Hope you get to it soon!

    ReplyDelete

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