Book: Tigana - Livre d'Or








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livredor
Book: Tigana
Friday, 19 August 2005 at 06:44 pm
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Author: Guy Gavriel Kay

Details: (c) Guy Gavriel Kay 1990; Pub ROC Fantasy 1991; ISBN 0-451-45115-5

Verdict: Tigana is traditional fantasy done very well, but nothing more than that.

Reasons for reading it: I read The lions of Al-Rassan ages ago (before I started my journal, in fact), and I quite enjoyed it, though I wasn't wildly enthusiastic. I've come across mentions of Tigana several times in discussions of great fantasy, so it seemed worth picking up.

How it came into my hands: When I was going mad in bookshops in Montreal, I found this and rysmiel was enthusiastic about it when I asked whether it was worth reading.

I understand what rysmiel meant by describing Tigana as "perfect". If you want to read about an oddly assorted adventuring party going on a quest to save their mythical country from tyrant sorcerors, it would be hard to find anything better. The only thing that prevents it from being absolutely generic sword-and-sworcery is that pretty much everyone in the story is human.

The mythical country is solid and original and there's lots of background detail, which blends into the story reasonably naturally. The way that magic and actual politics are woven together is particularly impressive. The story is exciting and complicated and twisty, and highly readable which is perhaps the most important thing. I particularly liked the Dianora / Brandin arc, and the way that fits in with the main storyline. The heroes win the day, but not in too predictable a fashion, and I do like the final sentence.

As for the characterization, well. I did sympathize quite a lot with them, and I think the technique of showing lots of different viewpoints, including the 'bad guys', is handled well. I'm also taken with the handling of sexuality and romance; people fall passionately in love in ways that are very much in keeping with genre expectations, but they don't always fall for the most convenient person. And the characters tend to have several attachments and relationships over a lifetime, without that detracting from the intensity of individual episodes. And some of them even decide that they work better as friends, which is a pleasant thing to see in this kind of setting.

The trouble is that somehow everyone comes across as slightly bland: well drawn types, but still more types than people. Devin isn't a whole lot more than a walking viewpoint, not a bad one but he doesn't really seem to have any distinguishing features. The fact that everybody else in the adventuring party has a specific role, with a past, a defect, a special talent and so on is almost equally irritating!

Kay seems to get a lot of praise for writing 'strong women', but I felt rather that too much is made of the Strong Woman nature of the female characters. It's very important that they're female; yes, they do take action, they're not just there for decoration or as prizes for the male heroes, but their action too often takes the form of either using their sexuality for some political end, or suicide. And just about every one of the major female characters is stunningly beautiful, which gets annoying. (I was a little thrown by a character called Catriana who has exceptionally long red hair that is constantly referred to. This is not really a criticism of Tigana, just a coincidence that will amuse a proportion of my friends list.)

Similarly, it's nice that, you know, not everyone in fantasy-land is white and heterosexual, but the inclusion of minorities is a bit too conscious to be really pleasing. And I was kind of uncomfortable with the way some of these token minority characters are treated. The subtext of the Tomasso bar Sandre arc seems to be that even though he had the character flaw of being gay (and I say gay intentionally; he's not just someone who happens to be attracted to men, he's camp in an extremely 20th century western culture way) he was still a decent, even heroic, person, and the reader is supposed to be surprised by this. To be fair this is partly Devin's viewpoint, but it does seem to be there throughout. Similarly, the black people are from Khardun, a distant foreign country that isn't really relevant to much of the plot, and it's a really huge deal when one of the party is so daring that he is prepared to disguise himself as someone with non-white skin!

Which is not to say that Tigana is sexist and racist; it's more that it's trying too hard to emphasize that it isn't. But apart from that it's certainly an enjoyable read. It's hard to put my finger on exactly why I found it slightly unsatisfying. Maybe it's just a little bit too genre, it never quite transcends the stock fantasy tropes, even while it handles those exquisitely.


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lethargic_man: reflect
From:lethargic_man
Date:August 22nd, 2005 08:03 pm (UTC)
2 hours after journal entry, 08:03 pm (lethargic_man's time)

Re: Tigana

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The only thing that prevents it from being absolutely generic sword-and-sworcery is that pretty much everyone in the story is human.

And the fact it's set in an alternate-world Renaissance Italy, in which the resemblance of Italy to a boot is cleverly twisted into the Peninsula of the Palm, which can be used as a symbolic and magical hand-gesture. (And also goes on to subvert geographical expectations by being set in its world's southern hemisphere, so the hot lands are to the north, not the south, and vice versa. But you'd have missed that as you have no feel of geography. ;^b)

FWIW, I also found it less than "perfect". It's certainly a good novel; but it left me feeling unsatisfied in some areas. For a start, I found it difficult to get into - it was several chapters before I was reading it because it drew me in.

In Tigana, we have the two Tyrants, portrayed as equally evil, but as the story unfolds we see that this isn't really the case. Alberico is a mercenary figure who would put half his subjects to death if he felt like it; whereas Brandin is, other than the Infamous Tigana Incident, a fairly benevolent ruler - or at least, no less benevolent than many. This raises all kinds of interesting points... only the story then goes and either ignores them or tramples all over them.

For instance, we see Brandin pass over the course of twenty years from the hated conqueror to the hero - in Kay's own words. Tolkein might have written in his foreword that TLotR did not pertain to the real WWII; Kay stated no such thing, and the fact that Brandin went unchallenged because of what he had done twenty years earlier resonates to me with the status IRL of many war criminals, and the issue of: should people be tried now for crimes they committed fifty years ago. (Of course they should! Their victims do not cease to be dead.) But apart from our lonely band of roving Tiganans, no one seems to have considered this issue at all.

(rysmiel's response to this when we were discussing it was: bear in mind, almost no-one remembers the issue. That is part of what makes Brandin's crime so severe to the Tiganans.)

Now consider tITI from a different perspective. In this world there is no Geneva Convention; there is nothing saying what can and can't be done in war. For a pseudo-mediaeval society, what is described in the book is no different from what was done IRL in mediaeval times. So is tITI really cause for a dispassionate historian to hate Brandin, when set aside the good he has done -- and his unification of his half of a previously f(r)actionated Palm?

Now consider the activities of Alessan and colleagues. Consider for example the incident in the Nievolene estate. They consider themselves fighting for a noble cause, but I see them as freedom fighters. Terrorists. It seems to me that Kay is endorsing the cause of terrorism here! It's the mostly-benevolent Empire and the Rebel Alliance supposedly in the cause of Good but simply causing harm through their activities all over again. Room for consideration in Tigana -- only nothing was made of it.

The other thing that really struck me about Tigana is the resonance with another kingdom which in revenge for revolting against a imperialist power got destroyed, its cities sacked and destroyed, following which to add insult to injury, the capital's name was changed and the entire country renamed after its inhabitants' hated the enemies, the Philistines: Palestine. (I've referred to this to you before, but it ought to mean more to you now you've read the book. :o))
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livredor: bookies
From:livredor
Date:August 23rd, 2005 10:07 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 10:07 am (livredor's time)

Re: Tigana

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Ee, I'm so pleased you have lots of interesting ideas about this book, thanks for this.

it's set in an alternate-world Renaissance Italy, in which the resemblance of Italy to a boot is cleverly twisted into the Peninsula of the Palm
Cool! I hadn't realized that at all, even though the note at the beginning says to pronounce stuff as Italian. I don't think it's working at the sort of level where it would make much difference whether it was based on a real historical period or the usual generic vaguely northern European Mediaeval; I didn't get much impression of the tech level, social structures etc.

to subvert geographical expectations by being set in its world's southern hemisphere
That much I had twigged to, despite missing most of the geographical subtlety.

I also found it less than "perfect". It's certainly a good novel; but it left me feeling unsatisfied in some areas.
The thing is, it really is close to a perfect example of the genre. If it had explored more of the underlying philosophical issues that you mention, it would have been going beyond the normal genre expectations. And of course most good books do that in some way. I don't think it's a wonderful book, it's just doing a very specific thing flawlessly.

we have the two Tyrants, portrayed as equally evil, but as the story unfolds we see that this isn't really the case
I definitely enjoyed that aspect, that you see something of the motivations of the tyrants and they're not just Evil Overlords torturing innocents for the sake of it. And the contrast between them is very nicely done. Brandin is one of the best fantasy villains I can think of, precisely because he's so complicated and 3D and you can't just hate him and be done with it.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:August 28th, 2005 01:23 pm (UTC)
5 days after journal entry, 01:23 pm (lethargic_man's time)

Re: Tigana

(Link)
it's set in an alternate-world Renaissance Italy, in which the resemblance of Italy to a boot is cleverly twisted into the Peninsula of the Palm
Cool! I hadn't realized that at all, even though the note at the beginning says to pronounce stuff as Italian. I don't think it's working at the sort of level where it would make much difference whether it was based on a real historical period or the usual generic vaguely northern European Mediaeval; I didn't get much impression of the tech level, social structures etc.

I assume (because it's an area of history I know nothing about) that it bears the same relation to RW Italian history that The Lions of Al-Rassan does to the RW Reconquista of Spain.
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livredor: teapot
From:livredor
Date:August 23rd, 2005 10:20 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 10:20 am (livredor's time)

part II

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So is tITI really cause for a dispassionate historian to hate Brandin, when set aside the good he has done
That's an excellent question, and one that the story raises but then doesn't really explore, I agree. The internal assumption is that the "good" characters, the Tiganan rebels, care about honour and patriotism, and anyone who puts pragmatic considerations above those values is basically venal and ignoble. This hierarchy of values is by no means obvious in the wider context, though.

I remember at one point Spanish M expressing the opinion that Ferdinand and Isabella were among the greatest rulers in Spain's history, and the way they treated the Jews was regrettable but necessary in the long term. They needed to isolate and finally expel the Jews in order to have a cohesive, united society capable of becoming a great world power. Like Alessan and company, I'm very emotionally engaged in the issue from the victims' viewpoint. But I do see that a truly dispassionate historian might well take that kind of view.

It's the mostly-benevolent Empire and the Rebel Alliance supposedly in the cause of Good but simply causing harm through their activities all over again.
Again, that problem is vaguely alluded to. They do have a bit of angsting over the amount of harm they're causing by deliberately starting a war between the two halves of the Palm, not to mention directly killing innocents as a means to this end. But it's very quickly dismissed. I think it would be an entirely different kind of book if this sort of issue were given proper consideration, and yes, probably one that I would like better. But it would destroy the fantasy suspension of disbelief (moral, as well as in terms of what is possible physically). One of the points of these kinds of heroic quest stories is that you know who the good guys are.

the resonance with another kingdom which in revenge for revolting against a imperialist power got destroyed
Yes, I did think of that, especially as Tigana was about the first thing I read after Tisha b'Av. I quickly concluded that comparing anyone to Jeremiah was probably unfair. But it definitely had these sort of echoes for me.
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lethargic_man: default
From:lethargic_man
Date:August 23rd, 2005 10:28 am (UTC)
16 hours after journal entry, 10:28 am (lethargic_man's time)

Re: part II

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Jeremiah? What I was referring to was no the destruction of the First Temple, but, very specifically, what the Romans did after the Judaean Revolt of 69 CE.

Another thing that resonated strongly for me in this book was the character who during the Ember Days kept a single candle alight in protest at what whatever deity the character recognise (I forget) allowed to happen; as I think I've mentioned to you before but again can now do so in context. I kind of wish something of the sort was possible in Judaism.
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