Monday 8 September 2014

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

"In this world, where we find ourselves, we need compassion more than anything, I think, or we are all alone.”

Stop the press! I hereby declare that Tigana may just be the finest stand-alone fantasy novel ever written. Yeah, it's that good. In fact, it transcends the genre and should be recognized as a great piece of literature in its own right. This is my my first encounter with the writings of Guy Gavriel Kay and it certainly won't be the last. Where has this author been hiding all my life? I'm kicking myself for not having read anything by him sooner. He's even Canadian! Shame on me.

I am not sure how his other novels compare, but based solely on the masterful work that is Tigana, it's a travesty that Mr. Kay has not received the recognition so rightfully deserved as one of the great Canadian authors of our time. Sure, he is much praised within fantasy circles, but rarely is he ever acknowledged amongst the more notable Canadian writers such as Margaret Atwood, Mordecai Richler, Michael Ondaatje, Robertson Davies, W.O. Mitchell or Alice Munro (just to name a few) who tend to steal the spotlight. I can't seem to shake off the nagging feeling that he has been wrongfully excluded because of a certain level of prejudice that exists against authors who write within the fantasy genre. This elitist attitude is completely unsound and downright infuriating to me. I really wish people would keep more of an open mind, embracing literature in its many forms instead of being quick to judge a novel as simply derivative just because it does not fall into the general consensus of serious literature.

So what is this story about? Well, for starters, it revolves around a conquered land known as the Palm, whose territory is divided up by two opposing empires, each under the control by a powerful sorcerer--Brandin of Ygrath of Alberico of Barbidor. For over twenty years, peace has been maintained by the two rulers but now tensions are beginning to rise as certain events are set into motion by a small group of rebels who aim to overthrow their oppressors. One particular province named Tigana has been cursed by Brandin due to particular circumstances and will soon pass out of all knowledge unless these individuals find a way to bring its name back into the world. Kay weaves a rich history of culture and religion that is nothing short of mesmerizing. He transports the reader to a fantastic realm that pulsates with authenticity and there is no limit to his imagination. It would be cruel to reveal more plot details and spoil the fun of discovering them on your own but it should be noted that the novel is surprisingly light on fantasy elements, the main emphasis placed on the characters and story. There is very little action, no large battles until the very end and the display of magic is marginal. Kay's decision to scale back the action is well-conceived because it allows more time to focus on the intricate narrative rather than wasting time on pointless fighting sequences. When these small bursts of action do occur, the stage has been slowly set up for awesomeness. One of the many interesting aspects of the novel is that the magic used in this world remains ambiguous and Kay is not adamant to go into technical detail at all. This approach is surprisingly effective, leaving room for the reader to use their imagination, to infer through context. He is a natural born story-teller, a very skilled writer who knows how to cleverly hook the reader into the narrative by revealing just enough information but not leaving them completely in the dark; dropping clues, calmly building suspense, and then knowing exactly when to divulge key plot points that are stunning in their turning points to move the story along towards its spectacular finale. He makes it seem so effortless.

Kay is able to take those familiar fantasy genre tropes and flip them on their head to tell a story that is truly unique full of depth and complexity. He imbues layers of ambiguity, metaphors and subtext that leaves the reader with plenty to contemplate. In fact, one can argue that the novel serves as a parable or allegory of colonial rule, the loss of cultural identity that often afflicts a conquered people. Tigana is a slow-burn and somewhat confusing at first since Kay drops the reader into this fantastical world without very little explanation, not to mention the plethora of characters to keep track of. Considering the many interconnected story-lines, Kay performs a miraculous juggling act with the use of shifting narrative perspectives to keep the story flowing at a steady pace. There are plenty of surprises and unexpected plot twists that dropped my jaw to the floor. As a stand-alone epic, I didn't think Kay could successfully pull it off without stumbling towards a lackluster climax but he continually surprised me and left me in awe. The penguin edition clocks in close to 800 pages and it's usually the sign of a great novel if it manages to keep me turning the pages at a brisk pace and by its conclusion, leave me wanting more. I honestly can't remember the last time I became so enraptured by a novel, reveling in the absolute pleasure of reading a great story that is entertaining as much as it is intelligently written, filled with elegant prose and memorable characters--heroes and villains that are not portrayed in black-and-white but come across as complex individuals struggling with their consciousness and who undergo moral dilemmas as a result of their actions. Kay also writes compelling female characters, strong independent women who do not fall into stereotypical gender roles. There are a few sex scenes (gasp!) but they are not gratuitous and believe it or not, actually serve a purpose to the story. Although it is difficult for me to settle upon a favorite character, Brandin of Ygrath stands out as one of the more fascinating villains I have come across in fantasy. He is a tyrant and has committed unspeakable crimes but he is a sympathetic antagonist whose cruel actions are understandable considering the circumstances leading up to his victory over the Western Palm. He might be a sorcerer wielding great power, but he is also human, someone who is flawed, blindsided by grief but also capable of expressing love, especially towards Dianora who plays a key role in the story.
On a somewhat related note, it surprises that no movie studios have decided to buy the rights to this novel. Kay's writing possesses a very cinematic quality that would translate well to the silver-screen and the epic story would certainly appeal to a mass audience but then again, it would also be very difficult to do the novel justice. Perhaps a mini-series would be the better way to go. This is one of those rare novels that still lingers in my mind and I can't wait to revisit it again. Even if you aren't a fan of the fantasy, do yourself a favor and give Tigana a chance. Like me, you might be pleasantly surprised to discover a newfound appreciation of the genre.

This novel is part of my Canadian Reading Project.


  1. Probably something you already know but the author worked with Christopher Tolkien to help edit The Silmarillion so it's not coincidental that he is able to bring that level of writing to his own fantasy works. I remember being blown away by his Fionavar series.

  2. Hello Satia! it's wonderful to hear from you again! I actually had no idea about that collaboration, pretty darn cool. I have the Fionavar trilogy queued up but want to read the Lions of Al-Rassan first. Have you read anything else by him?

  3. I had no idea that he's Canadian. My friend loves his writing and is always trying to convince me to read one of his novels. Perhaps it's finally time to take her advice!

  4. You'd be doing yourself a great favor by acquiescing to your friend's humble request. She seems to have excellent taste in literature. :)