Monday, October 7, 2013

Review: "Tigana" by Guy Gavriel Kay

To avenge his son’s death, the Ygrathan sorcerer-king Brandin laid a curse on the land of Tigana like no one had ever known—one that erased its very name. Only a generation after Tigana’s fall, few people in the peninsula of the Palm remember that such a province existed.

But even the worst tragedies leave survivors. A scattered handful of exiles remember Tigana and beautiful Avalle of the Towers, the birthplace of the Palm’s greatest music and arts, its noblest leaders and heroes. They do more than simply remember—they are determined to rise up and break the curse.

Devin d’Asoli, a traveling singer of rare talent, learns that his destiny holds more than concerts and pretty women when the truth of his own heritage is revealed. In league with Tigana’s outcast prince and a motley crew of other avengers, he embarks on a quest to unravel the sorceror’s magic, throw off the conqueror’s yoke, and make Tigana’s name heard in the Palm once again.

  2 out of 5 stars
(grump below the cut)
Full disclosure: I hated this book, and can never read 4/5ths of it again.

But the remaining one-fifth, I will read and reread until I have it memorized.

My grump with Tigana as a book are pretty simple: I was never invested in seeing the protagonists’ goal come to fruition, and I hated the main character, the gormless and vain Devin, with a boiling passion. (I hated Alessan, the exiled Prince, only slightly less so.)

When a book tells me that some place is Heaven On Earth, populated solely with men of saintly virtues, striking eyes, noble brows, the brave hearts of lions and the wisdom of angels, I get the hyperbolic heaves. My cynicism kicks in, and it takes a great deal of showing-not-telling to convince me to believe the narrative. The author, Guy Gavriel Kay, does a lot of telling and not showing (even if he uses every adverb in the dictionary in the process.)

As a place Tigana was never interesting to me, especially when compared with the other provinces of the Palm, which are inspired by medieval Italian city-states. Tigana is essentially a myth, one gilded with a heavy brush of memory and wishful thinking. In contrast, the other provinces are filled with people both good and bad, struggling with their own local problems, cultural trends, overseers of varying stripes, and so on. Kay develops the provinces and therefore I cared about them. Not so with Tigana. When the driving narrative of the book is to throw these 'lesser'--but more fully realized--provinces into extremely bloody war for the sake of reclaiming a ruin, and reinstituting Tigana's prince over the governors (because the royal family is Objectively The Best, according to Kay)...

... I couldn’t get on board.

Lest you think my focus is misplaced: the point that the heroes plan to make the other provinces bleed to avenge  their own is, in fact, made by another character within the story. He promptly gets overruled, magically enslaved and forced to comply by the noble, wise, and admirable Prince Alessan, and over time comes to see the error of his ways by narrative fiat, because Our Tigana Is Worth All Your Suffering. I exaggerate not a word of this.

In addition, Devin goes well beyond the usual Bland Young Hero rut and plummets straight into the pit of Actually Reprehensible Human Being. His narration is served with a side of constant self-congratulation that rendered his chapters--the aforementioned 4/5ths of the book--pretty much unreadable. I don’t think two pages ever went by without Devin remarking on how much he’s grown, how much more of a man he is, how far he’s come from the foolish child he was when the book began. Take that with a nice tall glass of contempt for women (complete with Madonna-Whore dichotomy!) and Devin's narrative role as Sex-Haver With The Female Characters for dessert, and I was making gagging noises throughout my reading experience. Out loud.

I have also never read a book that devotes so many words, and so often, to characters Feeling Their Destiny Come Upon Them, or reflecting on What A Decisive Moment That Was Just Now and What A Crossroads Of Fate I Have Just Embarked Upon.

So why, dear reader, did I continue reading? 

Because for a sum of one fifth of the book's total pages, the reader is granted a merciful reprieve from Devin’s vomit-inducing narration. In his stead is Dianora, HBIC and concubine of the antagonist, Classy Barbarian Sorcerer-King Brandin of Ygrath.

Brandin and Dianora’s story is emotionally devastating compelling, their interactions dynamic and razor-sharp, their storyline respectful to all parties (despite the warlord/concubine setup), their setting fully fleshed out, their goals—fundamentally opposed to one another and to the heroes', and yet each noble in their own way—of immediate and staying interest.

Dianora, another Tigana survivor, has infiltrated Brandin’s harem to kill him. But for years now, she has stayed her hand, weighing her honor and the nobility of her quest for vengeance against her unexpected admiration for her enemy. Meanwhile, Brandin—whose flaws make him far more relatable than the cartoonishly noble Alessan, and whose humor is a rare breath of fresh air in this ponderously narrated book—is revealed to be more than the brutish conqueror that the Tigana remnant believes. For all his power and all his sins, Brandin is a man motivated by his own sense of love, honor, and duty. He lives in exile from his own homeland to ensure that his son's memory outlasts that of his murderers.

Throughout the book, I was rooting for the supposed "villain"--not because antagonists tend to be more interesting to today's cynical reader than heroes, but because I sincerely believed that his were the better goals. Brandin's efforts to pacify and unite the provinces of the Palm--by their own traditions, rather than by conquest--stand in direct contrast to Alessan and Devin's attempt to start a war. Brandin's unwillingness to make others bear the consequences for his actions are pitted against Alessan's very ready willingness to do the opposite.

Meanwhile, in scene after scene, Brandin asks Dianora if she loves him, without ever using the words, and I was on the edge of my seat waiting for her to give him an answer.
She’d suggested to Brandin over a late, private supper that one of the measures of difference between men and women was that power made men attractive, but when a woman had power that merely made it attractive to praise her beauty.  He’d thought about it, leaning back and stroking his neat beard. She’d been aware of having taken a certain risk, but she’d also known him very well by then.

"Two questions," Brandin, Tyrant of the Western Palm, had asked, reading for the hand she’d left on the table. "Do you think that you have power, my Dianora?"

She’d expected that. “Only through you, and for the little time remaining before I grow old and you cease to grant me access to you.” A small slash at her rival there, but discreet enough, she judged. “But so long as you command me to come to you I will be seen to have power in your court, and poets will say I am more lovely now than I ever was. More lovely than the diadem of stars that crowns the crescent of the girdled world... or whatever the line was.”

"The curving diadem, I think he wrote." He smiled. She’d expected a compliment then, for he was generous with those. His grey eyes had remained sober though, and direct. He said, "My second question: Would I be attractive to you without the power that I wield?"

And that, she remembered, had almost caught her out. It was too unexpected a question.

She’d lowered her eyelashes to where their hands were twined. Looking up, with the sly, sidelong glance she knew he loved, Dianora had said, feigning surprise: “Do you wield power here? I hadn’t noticed."
And I cried and threw the book across the room because Brandin and Dianora are one of the most magnificent pair of classy, clever, funny, sexy fools I’ve ever found in published writing. And for their sake—and their sake alone—I recommend the book.

Tigana is not a stellar piece of writing. In addition to the Pondeously Portentious Narration I already mentioned, Kay is extremely fond of adverbs and a near stranger to the properly placed comma. The book also does poorly by its (few) female characters, who exist entirely to provide (gross) sexual encounters for the male heroes and, occasionally, as an object upon which for the men to project their various feelings of Nobility, Remorse, or Character Growth. I could talk at some length about Catriana d’Astibar, who is a shining gem of wasted character potential. (Someday I will.) The concubine Dianora is, ironically, the least sexualized/objectified woman in the book—but then, she’s the only one allowed her own voice.

I’ll end my grumping here, rather than going into a blow-by-blow account of Devin’s repulsiveness in contrast to Catriana’s thwarted development. I wish, I honestly wish, that I had enjoyed this book more. Its setup and its concept is extremely promising, and Kay proves that he has the capacity for infinitely fascinating, multi-layered, flawed and yet admirable characters. Unfortunately, he puts it to use only rarely in Tigana.

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