Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

November 14, 2011 at 1:31 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment
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Tigana coverGuy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is the first of his historical fantasies. It was the novel that made me a Kay fan and, according to the mental shorthand one is forced to use to compare novels read years apart, my second favorite of his novels after Lions of Al-Rassan. I reread it recently for the third time, but the first since 2004, when I called it “a great book” with only a few reservations.

Unfortunately, on the most recent reread I liked it less. Oh, it’s a good book all right, but great? The writing seemed creaky in places, especially near the beginning, and the seams in the story were more obvious to me, giving the novel a texture like premodern writings assembled from divergent sources. Dianora’s story is a tragedy that owes a great deal to Hamlet (though it hides it well enough I didn’t notice until just now) whereas Devin and his happy-go-lucky musician revolutionaries are upbeat and optimistic despite dangerous setbacks and bloody battles. The Ember Nights and Castle Borso segments feel like they are from still a third and perhaps fourth source.

But while I don’t like Tigana as much as I used to, I find it more interesting than ever. It’s a useful book for thinking about the fantasy genre in general because it stands with one foot in the Tolkienian tradition and one foot in the modern world (and occupies a similar position in Kay’s career, between the Tolkien/Lewis derivative Finovar Tapestry and his almost completely mundane historical fantasies).

Prince Alessan certainly feels like an old-fashioned character. Much like Tolkien’s Aragorn, he’s a hero who risks his life for the common good. Not only is he intended to be a role model for readers, within the story he’s a role model for the regular-guy-turned-hero protagonist Devin. This is old-fashioned because in what I would call a modern fantasy novel, characters like this are not allowed to succeed. His closest analogue in A Song of Ice and Fire is Eddard Stark, whose sense of honor and even mercy lead to disaster both for him personally and his entire nation. In Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy the equivalent character is the wizard Bayaz, for whom virtue is a cloak for his ruthlessly self-interested motives. In Tigana, no one comes out and says that Alessan is a good person because he’s noble (they don’t even say that as the Prince’s heir he’s the only legitimate ruler of Tigana) but all the characters from the nobility are good and honorable (Alessan, Sandre, and Brandin) whereas the true villain of the novel is a rich man trying to buy his way to power (Alberico).

That much was common in the epic fantasy of the 80s and 90s, but Tigana is also old-fashioned in its strong emphasis on nationalism. The setting is based on medieval Italy and the story is centered on the effort to unite the disparate provinces of the Palm into a single nation that can rule itself rather than be dominated by foreigners. An analysis of the degree to which the modern English-speaking world is post-nationalist is out of the scope of this essay, but I would argue that for all the patriotic symbolism and rhetoric that remain in politics, nationalism is on the way out and has been since World War II. Yet Tigana, published in 1994, is unashamedly a cheerleader for national pride.

But Tigana is also at least in part a modern fantasy novel, and as such it is not at all unaware of the critiques of nationalism. Epic fantasy outside the “gritty realism” brand of Martin and Abercrombie is frequently accused, and often justly, of being counter-revolutionary, where the revolution being referred to is that of France. Whatever the results of the French Revolution specifically, few would argue the revolutionaries weren’t on the right side of history in the debate about the divine right of kings, so the unconscious monarchism of stereotypical epic fantasy tends to inspire ridicule. Anyone who writes such a novel, the thinking goes, is either hopelessly ignorant of the real conditions of life in the middle ages, or else they haven’t thought about it at all and are mindlessly following the tropes of Tolkienian fantasy. The nationalism of Tigana isn’t quite so retrograde, but on the other hand there can be no doubt that within the novel nationalism is consciously espoused, challenged, and defended.

It is a measure of how committed Tigana is to questioning its own nationalist premise that the characters do not agree about the central conflict of the novel. The saintly Prince Alessan is the last Prince of Tigana, which has been under foreign occupation for many years. At the beginning of the novel Alessan recruits the protagonist Devin by a patriotic appeal to Devin’s Tiganan identity. Since many of the other characters are also from Tigana, it would be easy to assume that their goal should be to free Tigana from occupation. Certainly his mother thinks that to work towards anything else isn’t just a bad idea but a betrayal of Tigana’s lost generation.

But that is not Alessan’s goal. He wants to free the entire peninsula from occupation, not just Tigana. Early in the novel he makes his case to men of a different province conspiring against a different foreign occupier:

“Two facts,” the man called Alessan said crisply. “Learn them if you are serious about freedom in the Palm. One: if you oust or slay Alberico you will have Brandin upon you within three months. Two: if Brandin is ousted or slain Alberico will rule this peninsula within that same period of time.

This is a pragmatic argument: the whole Palm must be freed and united or else foreign powers will dominate it. But even here it is couched in ethical language about the “freedom in the Palm”. What Alessan means when he says freedom here, and what everyone means using the word freedom throughout the novel, is different from the modern use of the word. This is not freedom spoken of in the Declaration of Independence or the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the freedom to live one’s life without the King or Congress infringing on one’s natural rights. This is a strictly nationalist conception of freedom: freedom from foreign rule.

Typically, modern stories that advocate nationalism will do their best to conflate these two meanings of “freedom” to prevent the audience from questioning the virtue of the protagonist’s cause. For example, in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart the English are shown repeatedly abusing the natural rights of the Scottish, making them unfit rulers by Thomas Jefferson’s definition rather than forcing the audience to consider what might have motivated the historical William Wallace. Tigana doesn’t take this way out and even goes out of its way to show that foreign rule has had many beneficial effects. The presence of the Tyrants has ended the chronic feuding and constant wars of the various Palm provinces, saving countless lives. The Tyrants have also nearly exterminated bandits and brigands, making the roads much safer. Their courts support musicians, poets, and other types of culture, no small concern in a novel where most characters are musicians. Why endure war and all the inevitable suffering that accompanies it just to return to what will likely be less effective rule?

It’s all the more interesting that Tigana introduces these critiques given Kay doesn’t have any intellectual answer to them. That his sympathies lie with Alessan is made clear by the novel’s two sideplots, the Castle Borso scenes and the Ember Night sequence. Alienor and Castle Borso seem to be present in the novel solely to set out an idea (clearly author-endorsed but nevertheless extremely dubious) about the effects of “tyranny” on sexual practices. I put tyranny in scare quotes because the Alienor’s relationship to her foreign overlord seems unlikely to be different in any way to her previous arrangements with the duke of her province. The Ember Night section is an ill-conceived effort to give a political revolution cosmic significance by introducing a metaphysical threat against the whole world (well, it’s a little unclear, so perhaps just the peninsula?) and dispensing with it after about thirty pages. Here again, it is the “tyranny” (i.e. foreign rule, no matter how enlightened) of the Palm that has left it open to cosmic disaster.

All of this comes to a head toward the end of the novel, when love for Dianora and lingering anger at the loss of his son spur Brandin into renouncing his home of Ygrath and acclaims himself King of the Palm. Viewed dispassionately, to modern eyes this represents the fulfillment of everything Alessan has fought for. Brandin has lived on the Palm for twenty years, surely enough time to be considered naturalized, and he’s marrying a native. Moreover, he’s campaigning to defeat Alberico and unite the Palm into a single nation strong enough to resist future invasions. Inspired by this new nationalist platform, the common people rally to his banner, so he even has a democratic mandate (not that any of the novel’s characters ever seem the least interested in democracy). Although Brandin still maintains the spell that prevents people from hearing the name of Tigana, he even removes his punitive taxation on “Lower Corte”, providing them with the same benevolent rule his other provinces enjoyed. Surely this is wonderful!

But this just makes Alessan afraid. This is exactly what he said he wants to happen, but there’s just one problem: Brandin is unacceptable to him as king. The closest thing to an explanation the novel offers for this is the fact that Brandin still maintains the spell suppressing Tigana’s name, yet Alessan previously prioritized the “freedom of the Palm” over the restoration of the word Tigana even to the point of becoming estranged from his mother. If he brings his small force into the final battle on Brandin’s side, the result is sure to be unification of the Palm, but he’s willing to jeopardize the victory over Alberico in a far less likely scheme to defeat Brandin as well. The cynical explanation is that Alessan’s true desire is that he and no one else rule the Palm, but I think the real message is that Brandin is unacceptable because he was born in Ygrath, and that while he may have spent twenty years in the Palm, he’s not a native and never can be.

This isn’t stated, because as I said, Kay doesn’t offer any intellectual defense of the critiques of nationalism. His argument on behalf of nationalism is emotional, something typical of nationalist art but less common in modern fantasy. Characters in most fantasy novels love and hate other people, but few authors are better at showing characters who love their country than Kay. In Lions of Al-Rassan he puts this talent in service of a story that shows how patriotism can put friends on opposite sides of a destructive war, but in Tigana all his efforts are put toward making the reader understand and sympathize with the characters love for the Palm in general and Tigana in particular. It is this patriotism for a province he never knew, for instance, that drives Devin to abandon an increasingly lucrative career as a singer for the life of a revolutionary, a life to which he brings no applicable skills except that same patriotism. While reading the novel, I can almost buy into the idea myself.

But when I put the book down and think about it, nationalism doesn’t seem like such a good thing. I called Tigana a historical fantasy, but it is far less connected with real history than Kay’s later books, and no where more so than the thoroughly ahistorical depiction of nationalism without liberalism. The hero of Italian unification, Giuseppe Garibaldi, was a passionate advocate of universal suffrage, land reform, and the emancipation of women. In this his ambitions were frustrated and none of these things were achieved in the reunified Italy, because the real historical equivalent of Alessan (Victor Emmanuel II) didn’t see any reason to give up the power he had risked so much to obtain. Tigana presents a much more positive and successful version of the Italian reunification (and tells a fun adventure story while doing so), but in the process it purges what to a modern observer seems like the most important goals of the original unification movement in the first place.

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  1. One problem with this book, I think, is that Alessan is created as a Mary Sue character: He always makes the right choices and always wins. When his actions are viewed objectively, however, he actually comes across as Ahab. His sole goal is the death of Brandin, no matter what the costs; he essentially mind-rapes that one magician, forcing his obedience. Freeing the Palm really is just a side-effect (or, perhaps, a means to an end) This single focus is not terribly surprising, considering the indoctrination he received while growing up.

    Brandin is actually the character with the most depth. Brandin’s “white whale” is revenge for the death of his son, but he achieved that revenge (and is waiting for it to finish playing out) That leaves him to grow beyond it and develop what I believe to be the truest love story I have ever read (both to Dianorra and to the Palm)

    The book could be read as a case study of the different ways that obsession can play out.


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