Book review: Tigana

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
My rating: four stars

When I was a kid, I got onto the Tolkien trip and read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings.

Pretty cool, I thought.

Then I tried The Silmarillion and man, did those emergency brakes slam on. I haven’t tried that one since, and that was… about 35 years ago, now.

“Language. The process of sharing with words seemed such a futile exercise sometimes.”

This is a circuitous way to say that I was a bit dubious about Kay’s writing – he assisted in the assembly of The Silmarillion – before I began reading Tigana. Thankfully, the recommendation (and loan!) by Elizabeth (who reads a lot more fantasy than I do and is well versed in these matters) was solid: Tigana is a snappy, standalone fantasy novel that I practically inhaled.

To be a bit reductionist, the best approach to this novel is to imagine that Kay is translocating city-state medieval Italy the same way that George R.R. Martin translocates War of the Roses-era England. The settings aren’t meant to be those places, not really, but they use them as a template from which to proceed.

In the place where the story takes place, there’s common language, but no area unity: instead, the land’s provinces are pitted against each other beneath the yoke of duelling tyrants, each angling to win a final province. The tyrants are, naturally, magical adepts – to the extent that the name of a once-glorious foe has been struck from the minds of the populous.

Enter our band of unlikely heroes, destined to fuck shit up for these contending rulers. Or will they? There’s a lot of freedom in the story about whether the abilities of the group – musicians, magicians, merchants and mercenaries all – will be enough to right wrongs that have left generational shadows. There’s no assurance that victory is a dead cert, which kept me turning to find out what would happen next. The magic and supernatural events of the world don’t stretch credibility too far: the triadic gods and

The writing has much to recommend it. There’s plenty of humour, not a whole lot of excessive gore – though Kay can write a good gross-out scene when it’s suitable – and more high-minded love than there is Martinesque rooting (or worse). I must admit that this is the sort of book I wish I’d read as a teenager, because given how much I enjoyed it as a grumpy old man, I imagine that Young Me would’ve lost his shit at how much this zips along.

In the afterword for the text, Kay revealed that Communist-era photo retouching – to excise any politically troublesome details – and the city-state period of Italian history were key in the formation of the story, which takes the importance of memory, and of apprehension of the lessons of the past as its key concerns.

Now you see him, now you don’t.

The author doesn’t whack you over the head with the idea that forced erasure might not be, uh, the best way of dealing with shit you’d rather forget, but it runs through the book’s length. I certainly thought about it a bit while I was reading, in between call-to-adventure scenes and aha! character development moments. It’s just something that deepens the experience a little.

I’m not really a science fiction or fantasy reader, and have been trying to worm my way into the genres for a couple of years now. Gene Wolfe was the first author that made me think there might be something to this fantasy caper, and to my limited list of trusted names I can add Guy Gavriel Kay.

I don’t think this will be the last of his books I read at pace. It’s nice to know there’s more to come, as Tigana was a delectable beginning.

I’m not really using Goodreads any more, because I’d rather not get involved in its toxic, Bezos-enriching stew. If you’re after some good bookish times, please check out my profile on TheStoryGraph.

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