Tigana is a classic, stand alone fantasy novel by one of the greats of fantasy fiction. It is named after a province in the mythical Peninsula of the Palm.
Kay uses multiple points of view in this story, meaning that we look through the eyes of a number of characters. This allows us to follow events across the Palm, from a number of perspectives. I tend to enjoy this approach to fantasy writing and the author handles it well. Most of the characters we follow are exiles, of one kind or another, from Tigana: Devin, young and green; Catriana, equally young but more mature; Dianora, whose story is largely separate from the other characters; Baerd, her brother, full of anger and purpose. Interestingly, their leader, Prince Alessan, is never used as the POV by Kay, leaving him more mysterious and remote, which I think was a good decision. We are even treated to the POV of one of the main adversaries, Alberico of Barbadior, which Kay seems to enjoy writing. The characters are well drawn, with clear motives and backstory. They are also complex: the heroes make morally dubious decisions to get what they want, and the villains can be sympathetic, too. I found I cared about the characters. Having said that, when the book was finished, I didn’t find myself missing them, which can happen with my favourite books.
The story is set in the Palm, which is geographically an upside down Italy. Like medieval Italy, it is divided into different, disunited provinces. At the beginning of the story it has been invaded by two different foreign powers, Ygrath and Barbadior, who have divided the Palm between them. The world feels real, with a history, culture and religion of its own. Each province has its own unique characteristics, which inform much of the plot. All this world-building is done with a light touch, so that it never intrudes too much on the story.
There is magic in the Palm, but no great magicians. This explains how the antagonists, Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico of Barbadior, were able to conquer it in the first place. It also helps the reader to root for those struggling for independence, since they are underdogs for this very reason.
Tigana is an effortless read and Kay writes with a sense of poetry, like the earlier fantasy writers. It is, therefore, different to the more modern trend of gritty writing which can make it feel more dated than it is in some ways (it was published in 1990). This sense of poetry and magic pervades this novel, reminding me of classic Arthurian literature. It means that the world is perhaps not always logical or realistic—that’s OK, though—it’s a fantasy novel.
The story is centred on the fate of Tigana, one of the provinces of the Palm. It has been cursed by Brandin of Ygrath, as punishment for its resistance to his invasion. We focus, therefore, on the efforts of the heroes, mostly exiles from Tigana, to save their homeland. The themes of duty, of belonging to a place or people, are therefore very strong. None of the heroes are ‘super’ heroes, with extraordinary magic or martial skills to help them. Indeed, many of them are most proficient at making music. Neither do they have an army to help them. This fact is both a strength and a weakness of the book. It means that we root for them, as underdogs. However, in order for them to achieve their goals, we have to swallow a fair amount of dubious plotting. The route to victory, apparently, involves years of wandering around carrying out complicated/pointless acts of rebellion, or, conversely, huge acts of self-sacrifice. There is no conventional rebellion or civil war here; neither is there ever an outright attempt at assassination of the two wizards by the heroes. This is despite the fact that other attempts at assassination make it seem eminently achievable. This lack of realism in the plot was the one thing that made me harrumph while reading. Having said that, this is pretty standard fare in the fantasy genre.
This is a really good book, still loved by many, that has stood the test of time. It doesn’t have the complexity of some fantasy epics, but we are so used now to fantasy stories as trilogies, if not longer, that this is a somewhat unfair criticism. In Tigana, Kay achieves in a single novel what many authors fail to do in a series. If we are to judge it against other single, stand alone fantasy novels, then it is up there as one of the best ever written.