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An adventure story, a love story, a character study, a moral framework and a thing of rare, precise beauty. Tigana is, in short, a fantasy masterwork.
First published in 1990, Guy Gavriel Kay's Tigana centres on a group of dispirate rebels attempting to win back their land stolen from them by Brandin the Tyrant, himself one of two warring sorcerers battling each other for overall ownership of the Palm Peninsula.
The story's prologue describes the eve of the battle for Tigana, in which Brandin's son, Stevan, is subsequently killed. Struck with rage and grief, the nevertheless victorious Brandin imposes a huge toll upon the province that stole his son's life: he steals their identity. He burns their books and decimates their architecture, he denounces its history and ruins its future. Worst of all, he makes it so that no one within the Palm can even hear the name 'Tigana'. No one, that is, except those born in Tigana itself.
Stripped of their identity, their dignity and soul, the rebels step out upon a long and weaving pathway to restore the titular glory of their homeland by ridding the Palm of not just one, but both Tyrants.
Tigana is described as a fantasy but if you entertain any prejudices as to what this entails then disregard them now, for this is truly a transcendent piece of work. First and foremost Tigana is a stunning literary achievement in characterisation, pacing and exposition, that deals with wide-ranging, relevant topics, from the dual nature of love and hate to the social importance of culture and identity upon that of the individual.
Kay takes his time. He is patient and precise and you must be prepared for this. There are no shortcuts: the plot is a many-faceted thing that he constructs with absolute care, and this takes time. He doesn't shy away from backstory nor from describing in detail the thought processes of his characters. Fortunately his skill with exposition - something so many writers struggle with - is exemplorary and always engaging, and the dexterity and subtlety of his characterisation is a joy.
Tigana excels further by displaying an ambiguous moral framework - a refusal to descend into a simplistic Us versus Them narrative. We are given multiple perspectives, and sympathetically so, allowing us to understand the reasoning of both the rebellious and the tyrannical and to learn empathy for each. Whilst the righteousness of the rebel's task cannot be denied, neither can the often endearing nature of Brandin, to the extent that you find your loyalties, if not fully challenged, at least questioned.
As if in tune with the dilemma this may create for the reader, Kay proffers the character of Dionara, the estranged sister of one of the central rebels, who, in her bid to enact final revenge, has found herself a member of Brandin's harem. Despite not being introduced to her until nearly halfway through the book, Dionara is undoubtedly the story's lynchpin, eternally split by her affections of home and her growing love of the sorcerer who destroyed it. Her strength and complexity is a perfect microcosm of the book as a whole, and the skill in which she and others are drawn by Kay offers the reader a deep and affecting level of attachment as the story unfolds.
Tigana is a spider's web of a novel: delicate, complex, and beguilingly powerful. Nearly twenty years afters its release it remains, like Kay himself, one of the genre's most poignant and poetic exponents.