BY ANY MEANS NECESSARY!
A long gestating rebellion crosses moral lines to liberate a land and preserve the history and identity of its people.
Guy Gavriel Kay
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Voyager
Format: Paperback, 816 Pages
Date: 3rd February 2011
It would be easy for me to tell you that Guy Gavriel Kay’s most famous work, Tigana, is about a disparate group of people coming together to bring an end to twenty years of occupation of their homeland. But that would be a very shallow description of this tale. Scratch beneath the surface, you will find that Tigana is fundamentally a story about identity and history. An examination of the extremes that victors in war can go to in their efforts to re-write or completely destroy the identity and history of a conquered people. A book that will undoubtedly cause you to ask yourself to what lengths can you justifiably go to in order to preserve your identity and history from aggressors who seek to eliminate it.
Human history is replete with examples of those who come to power through violent means seeking to alter the identity and history of those whom they wish to subjugate. And this is not something that is restricted to ancient history, either; to this very day such things can, and still do occur. In fact modern technology arguably makes it easy to conceal, re-write or destroy history. The motivation for this course of action is invariably a desire to assimilate people, with the goal of eradicating dissent. But in Gavriel Kay’s novel, however, the slow systematic destruction of the province of Tigana, its civilisation and history, is little more than the collective punishment of its people; a vindictive act of revenge prompted by one man’s anger, loss and grief.
In the hands of most other fantasy writers, Tigana’s narrative would likely have been a very simplistic affair. The protagonists would be virtuous, honourable “good guys” heroically overcoming the odds to liberate their lands from the antagonists who would undoubtedly be depicted as nefarious “bad guys” who revel in their wrongdoing. But one of the things that has always elevated Kay’s works above many of his peers is his shunning of the good versus evil dichotomy that is so prevalent in the genre. And perhaps his greatest strength is his favouring of nuanced characterisation and character development over swift plot progression; a trait that is very much in evidence throughout Tigana. Something I imagine will not be to the liking of those who prefer action driven narratives above character driven ones.
This should in no way be construed as a declaration that the novel’s plot is not a compelling one. On the contrary, what’s not interesting about the aftermath of a setting, clearly inspired by the Italian Peninsula during the middle ages, suffering the misfortune of being simultaneously invaded by, not one, but two rival empires; Ygrath from the east, and Barbadior from the west? An invasion and subsequent occupation that couldn’t be repulsed, not just because both invading armies are lead by a powerful sorcerer, but due in large part to the internal divisions of a population bitterly divided between nine provinces unable to set aside their differences in pursuit of a common goal. I would certainly argue that this back-story is an excellent launchpad for an engaging narrative.
But Tigana is very much a novel in which the plot, and its resolution, is almost incidental; remaining subservient, throughout, to the actions and motivations of the book’s diverse cast. You could say it is essentially a character study examining the choices these characters make when grappling with the moral and ethical dilemmas that arise while engaged in a rebellion against foreign occupation. And this focus upon the characters is very much warranted. These are not one dimensional people whose actions can be painted in purely black and white terms. The author doesn’t shy away from the reality that even those with noble intentions can be guilty of questionable or outright objectionable actions yet still devise justifications for their deeds; to themselves and to others. Take for example, Alessan, the last surviving prince of the province of Tigana. He is clearly an honourable and principled man. Yet after a chance encounter with someone whose help is deemed essential to the liberation of the Palm Peninsula, he is able to justify using magic to enslave and rob this person of his free will after he refuses to willingly join the rebellion. Though it goes without saying that Alessan did not take this decision lightly, and was very contrite about his action.
On the flip-side, Kay doesn’t avoid the uncomfortable truth that even those who are justly perceived to be tyrannical oppressors are still human, and cannot easily be dismissed as irredeemable monsters, completely beyond the pail. This is evident in Kay’s portrayal of one of the book’s two principle antagonists, Brandin, the sorcerer king of Ygrath. It is established early on that Brandin not only sanctioned the wholesale destruction of the physical manifestations of Tigana’s civilisation and accomplishments, but he is personally responsible for the casting of a spell which erased the name and history of the province of Tigana from the minds of the people of the world. For this reason alone, Brandin should not be a likeable character, even though his malicious actions were prompted by his grief at the death of his son at the hands of the Tiganese resistance. But as the novel progresses he increasingly becomes a rather sympathetic character, thanks in no small part, to the depiction of his relationship with one of his concubines, Dianora, who unbeknown to Brandin is an exile from Tigana.
The novel is teeming with several unforgettable characters, particularly among Kay’s core group of rebels, lead by Alessan. While the resistance is comprised of people from the various provinces of the Palm Peninsula, it is the exiles from Tigana who are thrust front and centre by the author. This focus on the Tiganese helps to drive home the point that there is more at stake for them than simply bringing the occupation to an end. A consequence of Brandin’s sorcery is that only the people of Tigana who were alive when the spell was cast can speak or hear the name of the province, and retain their memories of its history. If that generation should pass away before the spell can be broken, Tigana will essentially never have existed. As far as the rest of the world is concerned, Tigana, has always been an insignificant and impoverished province called Lower Corte. So there is an urgency and desperation within the Tiganese contingent of the rebels that even their cohorts from the other provinces cannot fully understand, as magic prevents them from possessing any awareness of Tigana.
While there are many characters whom I could single out for praise, there are three who really stand out from the others: Alessan, Brandin and Dianora. Each of these individuals is multi-layered and complex, with genuinely intriguing story arcs.
Starting with Alessan; having been sent into hiding as a young boy after the fall of Tigana, he has dedicated two decades of his life to travelling throughout the provinces of the Palm Peninsula, in disguise, laying the groundwork for a united uprising to depose both occupying powers. In the process he has sacrificed much, including his relationship with his mother who has disowned him as a coward for his unwillingness to focus his efforts on the assassination of Brandin. But Alessan has never allowed the hurtful condemnation of his mother distract him from seeing the big picture that so few others are prepared to accept; it is futile to pursue a course of action that prioritises bringing to an end the occupation of Tigana, or any single province, in isolation from the others. The Palm Peninsula can only be liberated if the people of the nine provinces can be united to simultaneously remove both the Ygrathens, lead by Brandin, as well as the Barbadians, lead by the sorcerer warlord, Alberico. His single-mindedness and commitment to the cause means that Alessan occasionally makes decisions that he knows will cause innocent people to come to harm. And several innocent people do in fact lose their lives on his account. But in the great scheme of things, the restoration of the memory of Tigana, and freedom from occupation, makes these deaths a little easier for him to justify and live with.
While ostensibly the villain of the piece, Brandin, is never reduced to being a caricature; the implacable foe who does evil for evil’s sake. Though his worst transgressions are not sugar coated by the author, knowing that his actions are motivated by the love he had for his slain son does humanise him. The extreme lengths he goes to in order to avenge the death of his son highlights that even a warmongering imperialist has feelings, and is capable of emotions greater than personal ambition. His commitment to extinguishing the memory of Tigana from world as punishment, is absolute. Two decades after annexing the the eastern provinces of the peninsula while acceding the western provinces to the Barbadian empire, Brandin has never returned home to Ygrath; choosing instead to forsake his wife, and potentially his throne, to remain in the Palm Peninsula. Using his sorcery to extend his lifespan beyond its natural limit, Brandin is determined to live long enough to witness the permanent erasure of Tigana from history. A person this bitter and vindictive should be easy to hate, especially as he expresses no guilt or remorse about his choices with regard to Tigana and its people. But his interactions with Dianora make it next to impossible to do so. Time and again it is apparent that he is very much in love with her, despite his reluctance to express it.
Now, speaking of Dianora, she is unquestionably the most interesting character in the book, even though she’s only tangentially connected to the resistance. Her journey sees her fleeing Tigana as a teenage girl vowing to one day kill Brandin of Ygrath, to break the spell that is slowly eliminating her homeland from history. Starting a new life in another province, Dianora, adopts an assumed identity, concealing her Tiganese roots, patiently enduring some less than pleasant circumstances, all the while awaiting the day she can complete her one woman mission. But sometimes life doesn’t allow us to keep the promises we make. So, many years later when opportunity knocks, and Dianora finds herself perfectly placed to assassinate Brandin, things are complicated, and her commitment to the task is tested when she unwittingly falls in love with him. Thus she spends much of the story wavering between honouring her vow or supporting the man she loves through the various trials of ruling an empire. Of all the personal journeys in the novel, Dianora’s will likely make the biggest impression on most readers, as it is the saddest. Given the circumstances a happy ending was realistically never on the cards. But that certainly doesn’t detract from the fact that Dianora is the most memorable character on show.
In summation, though it is not my favourite novel by the author, it’s easy to appreciate why it is so well regarded by many, and considered his best by some. Tigana is such a masterfully written book with a well conceived story, with thought provoking themes of identity, history and patriotism. A novel blessed with amazing characters who are made all the more real by their moral ambiguity and the shades of grey they frequently stray into. Whose choices and actions, though not always possible to agree with, are easy to understand. If you have not yet read anything by Guy Gavriel Kay, I would say that Tigana is the perfect place to start.
For those who are sensitive about such things, the novel does contain a number of scenes depicting incest between a young brother and sister. Though never gratuitous, they might make for uncomfortable reading for some people.
Telling it like it is. Giving you honest and balanced, spoiler free reviews. Completely devoid of irrational fanboyism, or shameless astroturfing.