Review: Tigana

18Jun14

The best part about crowd-sourcing my summer reading list is that there’s a lot of sci-fi and fantasy on it. If I were only allowed to read one genre for the rest of my life, SF/F would be it. If some nitpick pointed out that that’s actually two genres (because, well, it is), I’d cheerfully pick F and spend the rest of my days surrounded by dragons, wizards, elves, orcs, thieves, vampires, witches, werewolves, and other such creatures battling the age-old war between good and evil in settings ranging from the idealized past to the urban future.

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is a solid example of why fantasy fiction brings me and many others so much joy. It’s the story of a land under a curse, the grief-stricken wizard who cursed it, and the men and women trying to break the curse. A book hasn’t made me gasp out loud in ages, but Tigana did it, and if you like medieval-style fantasy, you’re going to love this story.

Several covers of Tigana

Covers from different editions, courtesy of La Casa de El. Click through to read a review in Spanish.

Tigana is one country in a world where magic exists, but most of the inhabitants are human (supernatural creatures are frequently spoken of as legends, but very rarely seen). A generation ago, the Prince of Tigana murdered the wizard Brandin’s son in combat. Unfortunately, this only made Brandin more determined to conquer the country, and his forces pretty much reduced it to rubble. As if this weren’t enough of a lesson (NEVER underestimate the power of grief), Brandin curses the land so that nobody except people who were born there will be able to hear or speak the word “Tigana.” Everybody else will hear it as Charlie Brown adult wah-wah, which means that, in a generation, it will be as if the land and its history and culture had never existed.

The few remaining  Tigana-born citizens who weren’t completely psychologically crushed by this state of affairs (most people fled to live incognito in other lands) still take it very, very personally, and have banded together to defeat Brandin and lift the curse. Posing as traveling musicians, they roam throughout the world sowing the seeds of rebellion while dodging Brandin and Alberico, another not-very-nice wizard who doesn’t give a damn about Brandin or Tigana: he just wants to be emperor someday, and to hell with everybody else. And then, in the time-honored trope of “stranger-dropped-in-the-middle-of-things,” a young singer named Devin falls in with the Tigana crew and learns that he isn’t really the person his parents always claimed he was.

And then things get…very interesting.

Like many fantasy novelists, Kay’s trying to do a lot here. What he manages to accomplish, within the framework of the traditional fantasy novel, is next to incredible, especially since the narrative pov frequently switches up between chapters (a technique that allows Kay to conceal some crucial information and set up those jaw-dropping plot twists). Tigana and the other lands of the Palm are closely modeled on Italy, and if you’ve read some Raven Grimassi in your day, certain plot elements will hit you with a shock of pleased recognition. There’s also Machiavellian politics going on mad like woah, and an official state religious structure as well as folk religious beliefs that inform the characters’ actions. Sex and relationships are somewhat fluid, though certain practices are still considered taboo (homosexuality and BDSM have their parts to play here, so if you’re easily offended, this might not be the book you’re looking for). Magic rests in the hands of only a few, and leaves behind traces of its use so that practitioners can be spotted (a dangerous prospect in a land ruled by cranky wizards who don’t want more competition). In the hands of a lesser novelist, all of these elements might make for a hot mess; Kay, however, weaves them all into a solid, action-packed narrative that will keep you turning pages long past your bedtime to see how it all fits together.

Basically, it’s the perfect book, and I plan on buying it for my home library. If you’re into SF/F, you’ve probably already read it, but hopefully I’ve inspired you to go back and read it again. My only regret about reading it is that now I can never again read it for the first time…but at least I can talk it up to other people. Five stars and much respect.

 

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