There are books which I love and rave about after one or two readings, but for some reason never pick up again. Then there are those that never lose their hold on me, books that I return to year after year, because every time I enter those worlds, something magical happens. I’m talking about stories that are so well-crafted there’s always something new to discover every time you read them, stories that grow with your history and become your friends. For me, among these are The Lord of the Rings by J.R.R. Tolkien (of course), Watership Down by Richard Adams, The Chronicles of Narnia by C.S. Lewis, and the Earthsea series by Ursula K. Le Guin.
One of these is Tigana. I read it first when I was seventeen years old, then maybe once or twice every year after that. And yet, I seldom talk about it, the way that everyone I know finds out sooner or later what a Middle Earth geek I am. Maybe it’s because I never feel grown up enough to discuss the themes that the novel builds so eloquently and unforgettably. Guy Gavriel Kay asks difficult questions and makes it impossible for the reader to give simplistic answers. Trite, easy solutions will not suffice. For instance, there is no rigid demarcation between good and evil characters in Tigana — both unforgivable cruelty and the most incredible tenderness can be present in the human heart, whether he or she is oppressor or oppressed. *
And it is an act of oppression — and against it — that begins our journey into the Palm, a peninsula caught in a tug-of-war for power between two conquerors from overseas. One of them, King Brandin of Ygrath, lost his beloved son in battle when the citizens of Tigana defended their home against his invasion. In rage and grief, he crushes the once beautiful and artistic province, reducing it to rubble. However, his greatest act of revenge is not against towers and statues, but against the people themselves. With his powerful sorcery, he robs them of their history and heritage, by obliterating the name and memory of Tigana from every mind in the Palm except theirs. Only those born in Tigana before the curse can remember its glory before Brandin’s wrath, only they can speak its name and hear it spoken. Brandin not only robs the Tiganese of their home and countless lives, he takes away their identity itself.
Desperate to restore Tigana and to liberate the Palm, a small band of guerillas plot in secret and subtlety, led by the charismatic Alessan, son of the last Prince of Tigana. The story alternates between their quest and Dianora’s, a beautiful Tiganese woman who swore to kill Brandin of Ygrath with her own hands, but instead comes to anguished realization that she has fallen in love with him. It is this immense conflict in the soul that creates such superb tension in the book — Alessan, for the love of Tigana, is a noble man who is forced do things he morally objects to for the sake of his cause. Brandin, on the other hand, is a usurper, a tyrant bent on revenge, but he is also a grieving father capable of inspiring love even in his would-be assassin, Dianora.
And then there’s the experience of reading — no, living — the story. Kay immerses the reader fully in both the external and the internal universe of his characters . We believe in the Palm, in its geography and culture, and we come to care about its people, in all their pride and loss. The moments great and small, from the visceral violence of battle to the contemplative peace of a cold morning spent sipping a hot drink front of a fire, all resonate with life and authenticity. Through Kay’s masterful use of language, we are swept up into the excitement of an epic adventure, then we plunge into such depths of loss that grief becomes almost a palpable entity. In one of the latter moments when I first read the book, I used to wonder if there could ever be a happy ending to such a complex tale. With all the intertwined themes of love and revenge, greed and heroism, betrayal and freedom, what kind of resolution awaits all of the characters I have come to care about, on opposite sides of the conflict?**
Kay rises brilliantly to the task. He stays true to his world and to what Tolkien calls the “subcreation’s inner consistency of reality”, and gives the story a masterpiece of an ending. It is not “happy” , in the Disneyfied sense of the word, but it is satisfying and hauntingly powerful. For in the world of Tigana, as in our own, the fates of men and women seldom have black-and-white simplicity. It is this boldness and honesty in portraying the grey areas of the heart that make Tigana, a fantasy story in a make-believe universe, ring truer and more relevant than a significant amount of present-day books and films that supposedly deal with the “real world”. If there is one book I would recommend to both an avid reader of high fantasy and an uninitiated explorer of the genre, it would be Tigana.
* The only major character not ascribed with significant redeemable qualities is Alberico, Brandin’s rival tyrant from Barbadior. However, his evil is not the absolute, world-encompassing menace of Sauron or the White Witch — he does not quite have enough ambition for that. But ambition he does have, in a lesser, more human degree, which is all the more effective in helping the reader understand the stakes. Alberico’s corruption and the danger he poses are familiar and recognizable. We do not have to rely to fiction to show us what such greed for power does, it is in our history books, and in our newspapers.
** For some reason, the words of a character from another fantasy universe kept running through my head. In Jackson’s film adaptation of Tolkien’s the Lord of the Rings, the hobbit Samwise Gamgee poignantly asks, “How could the end be happy? How could the world go back to the way it was when so much bad had happened?”
(Here, let me gush about Tigana some more. 🙂 )