Review: Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay

Here is a story about me and Guy Gavriel Kay. When I first went to college, I met this girl on my hall who liked to read fantasy novels and I was like, Awesome! This is my First College Friend! She lent me The Summer Tree because she said Guy Gavriel Kay was amazing. I tried to read it and ferociously hated it, and then I tried twice more and kept on loathing it every time, so I leaned it up against her door and scampered away, and after that I slightly hid from her whenever I saw her because I didn’t want to tell her that I hated her favorite book. And then we didn’t become friends. Oh Past Jenny. What a dope you were.

Not a dope because I didn’t like The Summer Tree, I hasten to add. I am pretty sure The Summer Tree was genuinely boring. It was Guy Gavriel Kay’s first novel, and let’s be honest, even Tigana is not a riproaring barnburner of a book, in terms of plots moving along at a speedy pace. I was a dope because I thought I couldn’t be friends with someone whose favorite book I didn’t like. I am embarrassed of this story but I’m leaving it up because I think it’s good to confess past failings.

Anyway, I have never from that day to last December read a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Because of this event. I was too embarrassed by my past self to try Guy Gavriel Kay. Plus I thought he was boring and terrible, in spite of rave testimonials by many people whose taste I respect, including most notably Memory, who is always saying how great Guy Gavriel Kay is. Tigana is a book about memory and language, essentially. More specifically, it’s about a country, Tigana, whose name has been wiped from the memories of an entire world by a vengeful sorcerer. The only ones who can speak the name Tigana are the people who were born there, and as the years go on, their number is growing ever-smaller. All the sorcerer has to do is keep the spell going until all the Tigana-born people are dead, and he will have succeeded in destroying the country entirely. It is the plan of the protagonists to stop this from happening.

The Good: I love this premise. Guy Gavriel Kay was inspired by Brian Friel’s excellent play Translations, which made him think about the links between language and memory and the existence of what is being articulated and remembered. It’s brilliant that what’s at stake here is the survival of a memory. Many of the Tigana-born people are still alive, and Tigana itself still exists — albeit in grinding poverty and under a different name — but the protagonists are working to restore the name of Tigana as a nation. That’s something I don’t think I’ve seen in fiction before.

I also loved it that Kay gives his villains teeth. There are two main tyrants ruling all the countries in the land, and they are very different tyrants, but both of them are crazy tyrannical. In the initial meeting to discuss the plan for bringing them down, SPOILERS half the plotters die. Seriously. There are like seven of them there, and four of them die. And you are told that the tyrant wizard, Alberico, is going to hunt down every living member of their families and torture them to death. It’s intense, and it makes it impossible to forget that at any moment and for the smallest reason, any of our heroes could be caught and killed, and the whole plan could be destroyed.

There is this amazing part of the book where the main plotter, Alessan, basically enslaves a wizard they happen upon. Nobody tries to make the case that it’s okay for him to do this, and he himself hates it (and the wizard, obviously, hates it). But Alessan does it anyway, because it improves his odds of bringing back his beloved country. I loved the questions this raises about tyranny and control and freedom — Alessan is always telling the wizard, You weren’t free before because this land lives in tyranny, and it’s hard to say how much of this is rationalization for the terrible wrong he’s done to this man.

The conclusion was perfect. Sometimes terminal battle scenes don’t work for me, but this one worked like damn. SPOILERS both tyrants die, and in both cases they die in exactly the right way. It’s not overdone. It’s not deus ex machina-ish. It’s just right. And when Brandin dies, the sorcerer who removed Tigana from everyone’s memory, it even tugged at my heartstrings a little bit. Even though he was responsible for this very evil thing!

The Bad: The sex scenes. Just are not good. I wished they would never occur.

As much as I loved the ideas in this book, which was a lot, I didn’t love it as a whole. I never hit that place where the book became a necessary thing to my life. For the first two-thirds, I kept having to remind myself to go back and finish reading it so I could finish it and leave it with Mumsy. Intellectually I can see that this is a good book, but it hardly ever got me in the heart. Sadly. Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing doesn’t wow me (it doesn’t displease me; it just doesn’t actively bring me joy), so the length of the book sometimes felt unwarranted.

I’m not writing Guy Gavriel Kay off, mind you! Tigana was a good book, and if you do enjoy Kay’s writing a lot, it could be a really amazing read. I think what I’ll do is try one more Guy Gavriel Kay book before giving him up as Not For Me. Any recommendations? I’m not reading The Summer Tree. But anything else.

34 thoughts on “Review: Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay

  1. ‘Sailing to Sarantium’, the first of his two Byzantine mosaics novels, or ‘Under Heaven’, his Tang Dynasty China one. Avoid ‘Ysabel’ like the plague. Yes, absolutely, re his sex scenes – they hit some antithesis of a sweet spot where the romanticism of his characterisation goes ickily, dreadfully wrong.

    • Hahahahaha, that’s such a great way to describe his sex scenes. They’re as swooshy as the rest of the book’s scenes, but it’s just an awful idea to be swooshy in that exact manner where sex scenes are concerned.

  2. I think the sex scenes might have been what kept me from loving this novel so intensely that I could never stop trying to get other people to read it. At least they kept me aware that the good guys were not all noble and good.
    You’re so right about Brandin. He was evil personified, and yet I was sad when he died.
    “If you had the power to enslave a wizard would you do it?” No. Alessan had an overpowering reason and maybe the brains to handle it, but I have learned from Supernatural what happens when you require supernatural things to do your bidding and then they get free.

      • Hmm. Of course you’re right. You make me aware that when I say “noble and good” there’s some shorthand in there for “smarter than I am, more able to keep it together.”

  3. Totally agreed–the sexy bits didn’t work for me. And though I enjoyed the reading of it, I couldn’t help but feel that the author was putting a bit too much effort into making sure I Understood and Cared (cue violins in the background), and the more effort the author put into it, the less sure I was that I actually did care. That being said, I’ve re-read this one repeatedly, because it is an interesing story with interesting characters…

  4. I’ve re-read ‘Tigana’ several times, though there are bits that I often skip over (I much prefer the bits with Dianora, she is so fantastic a character, and her story is so interesting and heart-breaking). One of the things I do like about the book is that no-one (apart maybe from Alberico) is really good or really bad – the characters for whom we’re meant to be rooting do stuff (as you’ve mentioned with Alessan enslaving Erlein) which isn’t nice, and Brandin has his reasons for the utter eradication of Tigana. That said, I find Devin and Catriana rather irritating, and Elena a wimp.

    I agree with you that the Fionavar Tapestry is pretty weak – the borrowings from Tolkien and Celtic/Germanic myth are so overt, and the villain is just so over-the-top evil – so it’s no shame to dislike it! There are some good bits in it, though. I prefer Kay’s ‘The Lions of Al-Rassan’ and the ‘Sarantine Mosaic’ duology to ‘Tigana’. ‘A Song for Arbonne’ is fun, but the ending lets it down, IMO. And I’ve just read ‘The Last Light of the Sun’ which I enjoyed (and my review for which will be posted in a week or so’s time).

    • I really liked Dianora although honestly, if I were she, I’d have killed the guy. Or not stepped in front of the assassin. I lost SOME sympathy with her conflict after that happened. You know, at some point the conflict has been resolved in the wrong direction.

  5. Thanks for reviewing this one, Jen. I still haven’t gotten to it because I have actually a lot of stuff to read, and i keep interspersing my new stuff with comfort reads – the effect of a long and rainy winter and (now) a bad cold, I guess. I’m like, Oh, now I should finish Hallucinations! and then I think, No. RE-READ SUNSHINE. But I am going to get to it, so your sacrifice will not be in vain.

    BTW, just finished Chime. I loved it! You were a bit half-hearted about it, if i recall correctly? Have you reviewed it?

    • Was I half-hearted about it? My recollection — this is embarrassing but I already told a very VERY embarrassing story in the post so I guess it’s too late to start caring about that — is that I read it, liked it a lot, and had the impression somehow that you had hated it, and I didn’t want you to think I had bad taste. I AM SORRY I’M LIKE THIS. I disagree with you vocally on many other issues including how much fur should be on certain dresses.

  6. Seems a pretty fair review, especially seeing as you weren’t keen when you first tried his work. The ideas do sound interesting though for me I think I’d be put off for the reasons you were. I’m surprised there are sex scenes, it doesn’t sound the sort of book to include them.

  7. I love Kay, and think his books are wonderful, though I haven’t read The Summer Tree, and probably won’t after reading this review. Tigana was such a great read for me, and I found it so powerful, but I didn’t love it half as much as The Lions of Al-Rassan, which was my favorite read from him. I think you should give that one a try before abandoning him. He does so many clever things with plots, and the sex scenes are far less icky. Loved this review, by the way!

  8. I felt similarly to you about this. I enjoyed it (except for the sex scenes), but it didn’t seep into my soul, and I was perfectly happy to be out of that world when I was done. But I liked it enough that I’d read more Kay. Unfortunately, my next attempt was The Summer Tree. I’m willing to try one more time, so I’ll be interested to see what other books of his people recommend.

  9. I really enjoyed Tigana, although the ending fell a little bit apart for me with how Dianora’s story ends. But The Summer Tree… it’s got some nice ideas, but you can really see Kay struggling and failing to delineate an identity for himself outside of Tolkienesque, and it’s a disappointment, because his actual writing identity is varied and interesting. I didn’t like Under Heaven, but a fantasy novel that hews to Chinese history as much as most fantasy hews to European history? Fantastic!

  10. Funny, I actually quite liked The Summer Tree – yes, bits are pretty weak but it’s an easy read and I went on to the rest of the Fionavar Tapestry, and I did like The Sarantine Mosaic, but I’ve picked up Tigana several times and not really felt much inclination to read it. And I do know what you mean about his writing not having the wow factor. Oh, and I thought Ysabel was okay as a YA novel, I’d probably have enjoyed it a lot more when I was a teenager.

    • Don’t you hate it when you get a book as an adult that you’d have loved at another stage in your life? It feels like a terrible missed opportunity! I think I’ll probably give Ysabel a miss, and I’ve done my duty by The Summer Tree I think, but I still want to read at least one other GGK book before I quit.

  11. I started flicking through ‘The Summer Tree’ last night (for some reason it’s the only one of the Fionavar Tapestry books that I have on my bookshelves at the moment, though I own the others), and I can see why it wouldn’t appeal. They get transported to Fionavar and settle in suspiciously seamlessly and everyone speaks English and the men are arseholes even when they’re apologising (yes, you, Diarmuid) and Jaelle is much better than she’s portrayed and SPOILERS poor Jennifer ends up tortured and almost killed just because she’s beautiful. That said, it’s almost worth it for the bits with Paul on the Summer Tree, and the bits with Kim. Kim is awesome.

    • Hahahahahahha. I love this synopsis of the book. If anyone asks me why I don’t like The Summer Tree, I’m going to copy and paste this to them instead of telling them my ridiculous reason. :p

  12. I’ve always felt like I ought to try Guy Gavriel Kay but just never did. Now I feel like I know a lot more what I might be getting into, and not to feel bad if I don’t like his stuff. And to skip the sex scenes, obviously it seems

    • Dude, yeah. Just skim on past them. You won’t miss anything. They’re very weird and sort pf…precious? Which is the absolute worst quality a sex scene can ever have, in my opinion.

  13. Back when I used to work in a library I’d see Tigana on the shelf and it’d look so interesting! (The cover!) So I’d pick it up and flick through it and read a few pages. And it was boring. So I put it back. Then I’d forget about it and several months later find it again and the same thing would happen. For about three years this was going on! And I still don’t really want to read Tigana, even though I feel like I should for some reason.

    Sooooooo. Yeah!

  14. Hm. Your library must have had a different cover to the one my copy has. Mine was a pretty boring cover, not the kind of thing that would make me pick it up once, let alone a few different times.

  15. Oh, I totally agree with you on Tigana. I realize it’s Kay’s most famous work, but it didn’t rock my world, either. Kay often has this really frustrating habit of finding a man and a woman about 50 pages from the end of the book and going, “Oh, no! They can’t end up alone! Let me pair those two up together!” And then you get to the scene where the two get together and you’re like “WHERE DID THAT COME FROM?!” That really bothered me about Tigana and a few others.

    My favorite Kay is The Lions of Al-Rassan. I also really like A Song for Arbonne, but I push Lions more strongly.

  16. I mentally group Kay’s middle books, starting with Tigana, together, and think of them as all of apiece, and really do heartily recommend the others. They’re SO much better than Fionavar. Avoid Ysabel, which despite being YA (or maybe because of being YA??) has a lot in common with Fionavar; and hold off on his later stuff like Last Light of the Sun, Sarantine Mosaic and Under Heaven; which leaves you with Lions of Al-Rassan and Song For Arbonne, which everybody has recommended already. You should listen to everybody. I think the reason the “middle” books work so well is that there is an epic sweep to them that’s absent in the later ones. It’s not that he doesn’t depict the world of Tang Dynasty China, or Justinian’s Byzantine Empire, or Alfred the Great’s England, with the same meticulous care as Provence or Al-Andalus, but what’s at stake in the later ones isn’t so much the survival of the country/culture as the configuration of the protagonist’s own value system. And I think that by narrowing his focus Kay does himself a disservice, because epic fantasy is what he’s good at. This is the guy that Christopher Tolkien picked to help him edit the Silmarillion.

    I dunno, Last Light of the Sun is borederline as far as the epic/individual distinction, YMMV but definitely start with Al-Rassan and Arbonne.

    Also, as far as the decision to bind Erlein being a moral black mark against Alessan, I felt like Erlein’s eventual change of heart was a way of letting Alessan off easy. It’s ok to enslave people because everybody joins the revolutionary cause once they’re exposed to enough injustice. I’m not saying Alessan was wrong to do what he did, I’m just saying it cheapens everything Erlein went through the first night of his captivity, all the conversations they had about freedom, Erlein’s mental and physical anguish, all of it for what?

    Ugh I am with you on the awful sex scenes 110%.

  17. I love this post and all the comments. Thank you for sharing your embarrassing story. I think most of us can relate to this at some point as readers. I used to just straight up say how I felt about any book, but that got me the labels “book snob” and “mean.” Just because I didn’t like your favorite book doesn’t mean I think you are dumb! Even if I called your favorite book dumb! But I realize that that was probably rude. Now I sometimes swing too far in the opposite direction. I don’t want to offend anyone! So I’m too nice about things like Nicholas Sparks.

    Also, I like terrible things! It’s okay to like terrible things. But then again, if someone told me that they thought my favorite book was drivel I might be a little upset. Because I probably don’t love my favorite book despite it’s drivel-like qualities.

    Anyway, more on point to Tigana – I tried to read this book and did not succeed. I’m not sure if that’s because Kay is not for me? Or if I just wasn’t in the right mindset at the time? I will try again one day.

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