Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana was published in 1990, three years after the conclusion of his popular Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. A lengthy, stand-alone epic, Tigana follows the political, magical and emotional adventures of a group of freedom fighters in a fantasy analogue of Renaissance Italy.
The Palm is a peninsula located between the two large empires of Ygrath and Barbadior. As a result of this geographic mishap, the Palm is occupied and neatly divided between the two. For twenty years, this land has been the plaything of Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico of Barbadior. These two, known as the Tyrants, glare at one another across their occupied lands, while the subjugated natives grumble (quietly).
Under the leadership of the outlawed Prince Alessan, a band of heroes roams the Palm looking for a means to overthrow the Tyrants and return freedom to the land.
Prince Alessan and his fellow freedom fighters almost all hail from the province of Tigana. One of the last corners of the Palm to be conquered, Tigana resisted the invaders fiercely. In turn, after annihilating a generation of Tiganans (Tigani?), Brandin cast a spell that stripped the name ‘Tigana’ from everyone’s memory. The remaining Tigananians were cursed to live without identity, memory or even pride - their entire history was lost to them.
Kay dwells on this crime superficially (the worst example he conjures is having some mean ol’ guards poke a kid and say, ‘where are you from?’ - oh, the humanity!), but even so, the horrific impact of Brandin’s spell manages to become apparent to the reader. The Tiganoda are all wandering, cursed, frustrated children of an outcast, desolate older generation. They’re full of angst and fury, but without knowing why, or at even who to blame.
As a discussion of identity and belonging, Tigana merely treads the same ground as the other high fantasy epics from the era. It is a tale of superior people, sadly cursed with an undeservedly mundane existence. They realize who they are and then their real parents come to take them away. It is wish fulfilment for every disgruntled adolescent.
Tigana is also a book where shockingly little happens. Despite the epic scope (and length), the majority of the action has happened before the book even picks up. And what action does occur is a few sparse sentences, sprinkled meanly amongst endless pages of ponderous internal monologues.
Nor, unfortunately, does Tigana have the sort of engaging, character-driven narrative that could compensate for this lack of excitement. Tigana has lots of awkward staring, soulful singing and single-teared weeping, as Kay uses every shortcut possible to avoid the onerous task of giving a character depth. Tigana’s lack of action, noted above, doesn’t help - despite being 700 pages long, all the character-building trials and tribulations seem to have taken place in the distant and unrecorded past.
The world of the book is clearly well-developed, but Kay keeps the detail to a minimum in order to make the story (such as it is) driven more by the characters (such as they are). As a result, although the political intrigue is interesting, the history and the culture of the Palm are largely glossed over, merely hinting towards untold depths. In a few places, however, something bursts out of those murky depths to ambush the reader. Two key examples would be Baerd’s battle with the Night Walkers and Dianora’s dive for the ring in Chiara. In both cases, historical events are mentioned melodramatically - presented with a meaningful gasp - leaving the reader completely baffled as to their actual significance.
For a fantasy, magic also takes a decidedly low-key role. It is only important in two places: Brandin’s de-Tiganizing spell and the climactic battle. In both cases, it has been shoe-horned in to make the plot work. In the first instance, it gives Alessan et al. an excuse for their impassioned journey. In the second, the magical duel gives Mr. Kay a transparent means of getting everything wedged into a single, tidy place.
Tigana feels more like a test of stamina than a great emotional journey. Kay ambitiously eschews traditional high fantasy conventions like cinematic action and detailed world-building, but then fails to find anything with which to replace them. As a result, like Tigana itself, Tigana is strangely and magically forgettable.