Unforgettable. This year my big authorial find has been Canadian writer Guy Gavriel Kay – or “God” as I now like to call him – who with this and “The Lions Of Al-Rassan” has managed to get me very excited about the storytelling potential of fantastical alt-history. GGK sprinkles fantasy elements over real-world historical periods, emphasising their universal qualities but that’s like saying Shakespeare wrote a few plays. “Tigana” is a story that features sorcerer-tyrants casting crazy-powerful spells while still feeling painfully close to home and it is utterly wonderful in every way.
“Tigana” is about memory and the political power of language. It’s also a romping adventure story featuring a young farm boy who discovers a great secret and gets to unlock his fate. It features two tyrants, both of whom are complex. It is Brandin the Ygrathen who is responsible for an act of enforced cultural amnesia visited upon the region of Tigana and which drives the main characters of the novel to action while in the East we have Alberico the Barbadian, a gentleman for whom arrows are not a bother and who winds up being a rather good comedy character, constantly beset by the fools and events around him and dreaming of usurping his own coffin-dodging Emperor. Short-arse farm boy and talented musician Devin joins a travelling band of troubadours and quickly gets way more than he bargained for, not least from flame-haired Catriana in a cupboard during an important meeting. Structurally the novel comprises travel, meetings, assassination attempts, whispered confidences, the “Ring Dive” and much emotional intelligence. It’s a long book but doesn’t feel it, the prose is literate but uncomplicated while the flashes of violence (“Isolla’s head exploded like an overripe fruit smashed with a hammer”), sex and, above all, the focus on the emotional landscapes of the characters makes for a delicious, moreish, read.
As always, however, the devil is in the details and a straight precis of “Tigana” is laughably inadequate at conveying the riches on offer. For example, there’s the late in the day, kick-in-the-teeth, message delivered by Alessan’s mother which is a most unexpected plot twist and the epitome of “both good and bad news”. There’s the absolutely beautiful scene where quiet, serious Alais talks to her father about taking over the Sea Maid. There’s the end of Part 1 and Tomasso’s fate. There’s the trapped wizard Erlein who really. wants his freedom and while GGK is sexually progressive – at times breathtakingly-so – he still manages to have Alienor, Queen of Castle Borso, describe recreational sex as “a kind of insurrection in the dark that somehow stands against the laws of day”. There’s reams of this stuff. It would also be remiss of me not to mention the finale which GGK not only sticks but deals one of the most thrilling crescendos and resolutions I’ve come across since, oh, “The Lions Of Al-Rassan”. It is an utter knockout; Erlein saying “Link” and the Night Walkers Skyping in from across the Palm is right up there with the multi-army finale of ‘The Return Of The King’ and Dionara’s fate – no spoilers – is absolutely on point. This is a beautiful, humane and thrilling novel that lodges itself in your head and heart and does not let go.
That said, there’s something else that makes this novel chime with readers which GGK addresses in his interesting afterword. For example:
Wikipedia - Destruction_of_cultural_heritage_by_ISIL
“Tigana” has real-world atrocities on its mind, it’s not just mythopoiesis for the sake of it. ISIS would absolutely do what the sorcerer-tyrant Brandin does in “Tigana” if they could and, worse, they would do it because of ideology rather than grief. Brandin’s personal loss vastly complicates our reaction to him and embodying this is Dionara, sleeping with the enemy, hugely conflicted and well aware what she’s up to is surely going to get her killed sooner or later, probably by her own brother Baerd. The truly delicious thing about GGK’s writing is the ambiguity of his characters, he doesn’t do black and white not even when brutally depicting Tigana’s terrible predicament and, in my opinion, that is the mark of an artist. He make us see what drives even the worst of tyrants, an act of empathy incomprehensible to the likes of ISIS. In these polarised, binary times “Tigana” is an amazing novel to read. It’s certainly one of the best I’ve ever read.