Monday, February 02, 2009

Lisa’s Take: Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)

Tigana has some issues. The author pulls some tense-switcheroos that are a device to try and pull the reader into the current action; these switches don’t work. The prose at times gets choppy. Kay sometimes puts his words to the paper in such a way that it’s hard to really sink into the text and go with the flow. The editor missed some seriously glaring grammatical issues. There was one minor plot hitch that seemed a teensy bit contrived. One of the characters rang ever-so-slightly untrue to me.

There. It’s out of my system. On to the more important point:

Tigana is a masterpiece.

Really. I don’t think I’ll be able to put together effusive enough text to describe how much I enjoyed this book, nor portray just how astoundingly impressive it was. I’d be starting this review off with text along the lines of “this may be the best book I’ve read this year,” except that since Tigana is the first book I finished in 2009, it just wouldn’t sound quite as impressive. Regardless, it has certainly set a high bar to reach for the other 59 books I’d like to finish this year.

The book’s prologue opens with a man sitting on the bank of a river on the eve of a battle. He’s reflecting on the fight to come and the sure defeat that he and his comrades face. In a few short pages, a mellow, soft, sweet mood is set, overlaid with both sadness and pride. It’s an impressively subtle setup, and was certainly a portent of the mastery with which the rest of the book would be presented. Fast forward some unspecified amount of time, and we start getting into the meat of the book – which is to say meeting all of the excellent characters. As these many and varied individuals are introduced, the underlying current of the story begins to be revealed: one of the provinces of The Palm, where the story takes place, has been magically erased from history due to the vindictive actions of a dictator. The story follows the cast as they work to free The Palm from the two wizards who hold it in thrall, and restore the name of their beautiful homeland.

I know, the wizard thing sounds a little hokey, but I assure you it’s presented with enough subtlety so as not to become clichéd. Magic as a whole in Tigana is a very understated thing – it simply exists as a part of society without the author (or the characters) needing to fixate on it and expound at length. Which leads me nicely to my next point. The word “subtle” keeps coming up in this review. The reason is that everything about Tigana is subtle. The ways the author introduces the characters. The definitions of good versus evil versus gray. The conflict and pain and plans and resolutions: Kay does a magnificent job subtly showing, painting, demonstrating all of these things without having to explicitly tell you so. It makes for a gorgeous and seamless depiction of his characters, story, and world.

Ok, ok, I’m kind of starting to wax philosophical, so I’ll try to bring things back on track here. The story was magnificent – it was personal but still had an epic feel to it, and it covered a reasonable passage of time. I absolutely loved getting a fully flushed out fantasy story that was in a single volume, rather than being broken up into a “trilogy” (air-quotes included due to the fact that so few fantasy trilogies these days are actually trilogies, but rather most a single volume broken into three chunks). The characters were gorgeously developed and easy to relate to, and so very real that the choices they faced left me feeling torn up inside. The book’s pacing was superb and it never lagged or stretched on too long, nor did it rush at any point. Finally, taking this review a little further than I usually do – the themes that Kay addressed in the book were much deeper and more profound than most fantasy novels dare take on. This exploration might have raised my bar for meaningfulness in fantasy.

The ending of the book left me aching and teary, but still bittersweetly happy and very satisfied. I don’t know what I expected from the end of this book when I started it, but Kay managed to both surprise and fulfill me in ways I couldn’t have anticipated. So, if you couldn’t tell – a couple of very minor knit-picks aside, I absolutely adored Tigana. I’m glad that I continued to read Kay’s work; I enjoyed Ysabel well enough, but it was nothing compared with the subtlety and mastery he exhibited in Tigana. I’ll definitely be picking up some more works by him soon.


Geoffrey said...

Tigana is one of the best epic fantasy novels out there. As you say, it's a masterpiece.

So when I say that two of his historical fantasies--The Lions of al-Rassan and the two-volume Sarantine Mosaic--are better than Tigana, you now have a frame of reference.

Anonymous said...

Tigana was the book that cemented my affection for Guy Gavriel Kay's body of work. This review does a brilliant job of capturing why. Thanks for writing it.

Personally I don't feel that his other work matches it (which is a bit like saying the rest of the Beatles' body of work doesn't match "Yesterday" -- maybe it's true, maybe it's not, either way it's a pretty meaningless assertion), but I do agree that the books which come closest are The Lions of al-Rassan and the Sarantine Mosaic.

LisaBit said...

Man, with resounding praise like that you guys are going to make me skip the other books I have lined up and go for more GGK! I'm very much looking forward to them!