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.