Tigana is an epic but low-magic fantasy novel by Guy Gavriel Kay. Set on a hand-shaped peninsula that is currently occupied by two competing occupying forces, each led by a powerful sorcerer. It’s a literary fantasy novel in that it’s more influenced by Italian history than Dungeons & Dragons, but it’s readily accessible by others and has a fairly wide appeal.
Brief plot summary
As I mentioned above, the Peninsula of the Palm has been partially conquered, from opposite ends, by two competing sorcerers. Tigana is the name of one of the provinces who initially resisted the invasion, but one of the sorcerers has used magic to remove even the idea of Tigana from people’s minds. Only those born in the province before the invasion remember of its existence.
The main plot follows a group of travelling musicians/revolutionaries and their attempts to overthrow both invaders and restore the memory of Tigana to its former glory.
So how is it?
I liked Tigana. Not as much as some of Kay’s other work, but it tells an interesting story and Kay does a great job of keeping the characters believable. Brandin, the sorcerer who obliterated Tigana, is a surprisingly sympathetic character. The cast is large but not excessive, and the heroes are presented as just as flawed as Brandin.
Tigana isn’t a story about saving the universe from certain destruction, but it still manages to have a fairly large scope. The revolutionaries are depicted credibly, relying on word of mouth to build support before overt acts of resistance. It results in an effective ebb and flow to the novel, preventing it from dragging too much but avoiding the “All action all the time!” feel of so many sword and sorcery books.
Despite the fantastical aspects, (and aside from the invading wizards there really aren’t many) Kay keeps everything rooted very strongly in the real world. The fact that Kay assisted Christopher Tolkien in editing the Silmarillion shows how strong he is, both from a fantasy perspective and from a historical-mythopoeic perspective.
It’s good stuff, generally without any serious “dealbreakers” for fantasy readers. It’s crowd-pleasing but has enough thematic depth that it’s great for almost anyone interested in the genre.
Tigana is one of my fairly safe “go-to” fantasy novel recommendations. It’s not totally often that I recommend it though, as most of the people who ask me for recommendations have already read it. It’s much more common that people who have read Tigana are looking for other books in a similar vein. I have yet to encounter a fantasy reader who didn’t enjoy Tigana (although casual perusing of reviews online reveals that they do exist).
My first go-to when people ask about things similar to Tigana is automatically Under Heaven, which has a lot going for it. Personally, I prefer Under Heaven to Tigana for reasons I’ll get into when I do a post dedicated to it.