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Guy Gavriel Kay: Tigana

I read Tigana ten years ago, and mostly liked it a lot. It’s a one-volume novel set in sort of a fantasy (i.e., there’s magic) medieval Italy. The writing is good and the plot is interesting. That said, I liked it less this time around, and this reread pretty much did away with my enthusiasm for recommending it to my wife. Since this was a reread, I’m going to discard my usual attempt to be as spoiler free as possible and talk more openly about the contents of the book.

Spoilers follow!

The main problem I have with Tigana stems from the fact that the villain (Brandin) is too sympathetic. I understand that Kay was going for the whole shades-of-gray thing, but I think he tried to have it both ways and failed; the triumphant end is so undercut by the tragedy of Brandin and Dianora that it just rings false. The epilogue has a cheeriness to it that seemed so forced to me the first time I read the book that I thought it must have been intentional, but on a reread I think it’s just an authorial mistake.

The flip side of presenting a nuanced and sympathetic portrayal of Brandin is showing the dark side of Alessan, the heroic prince who triumphs in the end. And he does a bunch of rather shady things, such as magically enslaving a wizard who was just minding his own business. Again, this could have been really interesting if the point was to show that maybe, if you look at it from a disinterested perspective, the “hero” isn’t necessarily any better than the “villain”. But Kay tries to have it both ways again: he gets all shades-of-gray by having Alessan enslave the wizard, but hey, Alessan feels bad about it! And broods about how hard it is to be an exiled prince who has to do what he has to do! And then eventually the wizard gets turned around to their cause, and Alessan lets him free, which shows how nice he really is! And then the wizard decides to stay with the good guys anyway! The whole plot feels like a total cop-out, like when a superhero is given the terrible ethical choice of which of two people to save — and then saves them both. What was the point of setting up a terrible decision if the person making it gets to have it both ways?

So on the one hand Kay is setting up a really interesting situation, and on the other hand he’s constantly authorially apologizing for it. Just to bring up one other example: the whole plot is about Alessan reclaiming what’s rightfully his; Brandin invaded the peninsula and now Alessan’s taking it (or at least his part of it) back. But, not to be too blunt about it, that’s just what war is: countries taking land from other countries. It’s not a battle of good vs evil, like in The Lord of the Rings, say; it’s a battle of Guy Who Got His Stuff Taken vs Guy Who Took His Stuff. It’s not so clear that Alessan has that much of a moral right to throw the entire peninsula into upheaval just to get his province back —although of course once he does, the whole peninsula wants to make him their king. Sigh.

So, overall, a lot of interesting moral ambiguity that the author didn’t seem to have the guts to fully follow through on. The first time I read it, I tried to give Kay the benefit of the doubt; this time, knowing what was coming, that was more difficult.