Book Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s novel Tigana was first published back in 1990, although I first read it in 1999. It has remained one of my favourite novels. I have a signed first edition hardcover, in addition to my paperback reading edition.

Tigana is a wonderful novel which examines the power of memories. The theme of remembering is woven throughout, starting with the opening prologue, where the Prince of Tigana muses on what legacy he leaves his country: “Oh, our pride. Our terrible pride. Will they remember that most about us, do you think, after we are gone?” to which his companion states that “the one they that we know with certainty is that they will remember us. Here in the peninsula, and in Ygrath, and Quileia, even west over the sea, in Barbadior and its Empire. We will leave a name” (16). The novel quickly opens to the tragedy of Brandin of Ygrath’s great wrath, where in his magic he ripped away the name and cultural heritage of the province of Tigana, such that only those born in the province can comprehend the name.

There may be spoilers after the cut, but the book has been out for over twenty years. It’s still a worthwhile read.

For the characters in the novel, memory is an important talisman, a connection to their past. During my most recent reading of the novel, I have been troubled by the narration of the flashbacks. They tend to start with a particular character, such as Dianora, who is thinking about some connection to their past. The flashback begins with a narration from their point of view. In Dianora’s case, she remembers her plan to somehow gain entry into Brandin’s castle, in order to kill him and redeem her province’s name.

However, the narration tends to shift points of view, to the governor of the occupied province, and to that of the tribute ship captain who takes Dianora as hostage. The shift is subtle, and would fit within the narrative structure of the novel, except when one considers the nature of memory, and its importance to the text. This passage and others disrupt the flow of the story ever so slightly for me.

Kay explores numerous moral quandaries, often to do with the elements of choice and freedom. When Alessan binds the wizard Erlein to his cause through a magical connection, the issue of conscription is explored. Other differences of opinion are also explored, namely the different ways in which Brandin of Ygrath could be deposed, releasing the spell on Tigana’s name. Alessan firmly believes that both Brandin and the Barbadian sorcerer Alberico need to be taken down at the same time in order to free all the provinces, which others, such as his mother, only care about the fate their own province has suffered. In a way, this reflects the differences between smaller city-states and a sense of growing nationalism which spread through Europe in our history. This is further complicated in the text when Brandin abdicates his throne in distant Ygrath, in order to fully commit to ruling the Peninsula of the Palm. The binding of himself to the lands which he conquered wins himself great praise from the people. In his stand against Alberico, a man who only seeks to gain power to return home and seize the Emporer’s throne, Brandin can be seen as heroic, defending his newly claimed kingdom against an invader with no ties to the land. That he originally came as an overseas conqueror is of course another matter.

Possibly the most controversial aspect of the novel is the portrayal of the female characters. Many of the female characters use sex as a weapon, or tool. From Catriana’s first encounter with Devin, to her later assassination of the Barbadior ambassador, or through Dianora’s love for Brandin, who caused Tigana’s name to be wiped from peninsula, the female characters tend to be at war with their own nature.

Possibly the best exception to this trend is that of Alais, who aspires to run her father’s business, as a merchant ship captain. In the novel, she represents modesty and innocence, while still providing non-traditional goals and aspirations. As her character is more fully developed at the end of the story, Alais is a foil to the other female characters.

Rereading Tigana was enjoyable. it’s not a story without problems, but Kay’s novel successfully challenges several moral choices, prompting the reader to consider some issues of debate. It’s worth a read.

Author: Nick Matthews

A software developer and English major. Full time geek.

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