Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

November 14, 2011 at 1:31 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

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.

Under Heaven by Guy Gavriel Kay

August 26, 2010 at 12:47 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 2 Comments

Under Heaven coverIt’s rare that I can say I’ve read every novel an author has published, at least when the author in question has published more than a handful of books. The way I count such things (counting a continuous trilogy as one), Guy Gavriel Kay has published eight and I have read all of them. If you’re not familiar with his career, he debuted with a Tolkien-clone high fantasy trilogy, The Finovar Tapestry and recently wrote a contemporary fantasy with a teenage protagonist, Ysabel. However, he is primarily known for the relatively unique approach he takes in the rest of his work, which I suppose can be summed up as “historical fantasy”. His first novel in this form, Tigana, was content to merely evoke Renaissance Italy while remaining an independent setting and story, but the rest of his books stay very close to history in both setting and events, changing names but never leaving any doubt as to their real analogues. In Under Heaven, the Ninth Dynasty emperor Taizu rules Kitai but the reader is expected to know this is really the Tang Dynasty emperor Xuanzong ruling China. I don’t mean that a knowledge of Chinese history is required to enjoy Under Heaven (if anything the opposite is true), merely that there is no artifice here. Kay is writing about China in the Tang Dynasty but by changing the names he is declaring independence from history.

The reason he does this may not be what you expect. When asked why Cryptonomicon refers to “Finux” instead of “Linux”, Neal Stephenson said that if he used the real name Linux experts would jump all over any inaccuracies in the book, no matter how slight. Kay, in contrast, does this because for all his research into the details of day to day life he is interested in explicitly romanticized history, not history as it happened. I’m sure this is not an entirely unique strategy for approaching history, but it’s refreshingly different from our culture’s obsession with demystification. There’s no doubt that the real El Cid was nothing like his analogue in The Lions of Al-Rassan, but Kay’s version is an attempt at exploring what El Cid ought to have been like. At its best, this technique lets Kay turn his considerable talents towards immersing the modern reader in the past and helping them understand why people with different ideals acted the way they did. It doesn’t always work, however, because in making the main characters sympathetic Kay has often resorted to giving them what are, in my view, implausibly modern attitudes. Since Kay doesn’t pull many punches when it comes to how people in the past treated women, the poor, etc. his enlightened protagonists have often struck me as being very out of place. I’m sure there were people in past eras who were ahead of their time in these attitudes, but I need to be sold on why these extraordinary individuals thought so differently from the vast majority.

In this respect, Under Heaven is a refinement and improvement on Kay’s past work. The primary protagonist, Shen Tai, is humane and sympathetic but never struck me as a man from another time. He has unusual attitudes, but there is ample justification for these in his backstory and the book’s other characters frequently note this as well. The other viewpoint characters are not developed to the same degree but seemed convincing as products of their society. Additionally, I actually think Kay does something impressive with Shen Tai beyond simply doing a good job making a sympathetic yet realistic character. There’s a common conceit in martial arts stories (and although Under Heaven is mostly a story about characters and societies it isn’t above indulging in a martial arts scene now and then) that the most important attribute of a character is his or her strength of will, and that extraordinarily good and extraordinarily evil people are therefore especially formidable in combat. Kay’s Shen Tai is a character who becomes a formidable man in his society because he is extraordinarily good, and Kay finds a way to make this happen without resorting to cliches. Of the novel’s characters, Shen Tai is not the smartest, most attractive, or the best fighter. However, he is probably the best person of all of them, and Kay shows how this makes him powerful. Not because his inner virtue results in being able to punch harder, but because other people can’t help but respond to his words and actions. And all this is done without making Shen Tai a patronizing saint. Instead he’s just a thoughtful man, better traveled than most, whose experiences have given him a different perspective than his peers.

It’s possible that Kay was a little too successful with Shen Tai as a character. Whenever the novel was centered on him, his problems, and his difficult choices, I was captivated. But the novel covers two other storylines in detail. In one, Shen Tai’s sister Li-Mei has adventures on the borders of Kitai and beyond. Unfortunately, though no fault of her own, Shen Li-Mei is an almost entirely passive character who is carted around, sometimes literally, by various people throughout the whole book without ever having any control over her own destiny. Her story gives Kay a chance to lead the reader through the lands beyond Kitai and some other events and locations the main story would otherwise miss, but it never feels integrated with the main narrative.

The other story the novel tells is that of the rivalry between the two most powerful officials in the emperor’s court. Unlike Shen Li-Mei’s adventures, this is completely intertwined with Shen Tai’s situation, to the point that it is not immediately obvious this is a different story at all. But in the end, it is this story that dominates that final quarter of the novel. I was not sufficiently versed in Chinese history to know ahead of time, but it turns out than while Shen Tai is invented out of whole cloth, the two feuding ministers and their complicated relationship with the emperor and his favored consort is taken directly from the historical record. Shen Tai is powerful and influential, but he is no match for the emperor and his court, and ultimately he spends the last part of the novel almost as much a spectator as the reader.

This unsatisfying conclusion was a deliberate choice by Kay, who is fascinated, almost obsessed, with the way people’s lives are tossed and turned in the tides of history. This has always been present in his fiction, but where it was just a minor theme in Tigana (and part of one of my all-time favorite closing scenes) over the years Kay has emphasized this more and more in his work. When reading Last Light of the Sun I thought Kay’s willingness to periodically stop telling the story and instead rhapsodize in the first person plural on how a small event can change “our” lives was bizarre and annoying. In Under Heaven even more time is spent on asides about chance, fate, and history, but I actually didn’t find it nearly as jarring. In part I might have simply been expecting it, but I think mainly it is just a better fit here thanks to Shen Tai being such an introspective main character.

Still, the fact remains that Kay is ultimately less interested in just telling an interesting story with a Tang Dynasty setting and more interested in dramatizing a specific historical event and using that to show how the choices of a few powerful people can change the course of millions of lives. I think Under Heaven was completely successful at what Kay set out to do, but it wasn’t quite the novel I was hoping to read. That’s not to say it isn’t a very good novel. I still think that The Lions of Al-Rassan is Kay’s best work, but I liked this more than any of his other post-Lions novels, a welcome return to form after lesser works like The Sarantine Mosaic and Last Light of the Sun.

Reread: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

June 6, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 4 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | 1 Comment

Guy Gavriel approaching the height of his powers. His first trilogy is both too Tolkien-obsessed and too rough in terms of writing, and his later books become too bound to history and mysticism. I’m hard pressed to pick out the best of Kay’s middle three books, and while I generally rank them Lions of Al-Rassan, Tigana, and then Song for Arbonne others disagree. Certainly it is no slight to Tigana to put it under Lions. Tigana’s broad theme, regional nationalism, is rather stuffy by modern standards, and it’s easy to look down on someone (and several people do it here) invoking the word “freedom” a great deal with the expected end result of making himself monarch. Tigana’s pseudo-Italy is not quite as gritty as the worlds of his later books, but even here the first rule with Kay is you have to simply accept that his characters have modern attitudes despite their setting. If you can get past that and accept Kay’s flair for the slightly melodramatic, Tigana is a great book. His writing is considerably better than in the Finovar Tapestry and his character work is quite good. Tigana is a remarkably nuanced book, almost to a fault. If I have any complaint it is that Albericco was a little too weak and snivelling, especially after being painted in the first section of the book as a very powerful and evil figure. Watch out for Kay’s out-of-left-field stand against truth in favor of happiness near the very end of the book.

Last Light of the Sun by Guy Gavriel Kay

April 29, 2004 at 12:00 am | Posted in 3 stars, Book Reviews, Fantasy | Leave a comment

I consider myself a big Guy Gavriel Kay fan. Although unlike some I don’t recommend his Finovar Tapestry, which I thought was occasionally moving but sabotaged by the uneven writing and world-building, I have liked everything he has written since. If you can suspend your disbelief and accept that the main characters will have very modern ideas about war and equality of class, race, and gender, Kay has written some great books.

So it’s difficult to admit that not only is Last Light of the Sun is my least favorite of Kay’s post-Finovar pseudo-historical work, but also indicative of a decline. Previously the Sarantine Mosaic duology, Kay’s second most recent work, was my least favorite of Kay’s history-based books.

That’s not to say Last Light of the Sun is a bad book by any means. From any other author I would consider it a book strong enough to make me put the author on my to-read list. The worst part of it is not the book itself, but the direction it seems Kay is going with his work. Those who have read and haven’t liked Kay’s post-Finovar work in the past should give this a pass. Those who haven’t read Kay at all should start with Tigana or Lions of Al-Rassan.

For those who have already read Last Light of the Sun, specifics follow.  If you haven’t read it and plan to, I’d suggesting avoiding the spoilers.

Notes on why I was disappointed:

  • The first issue I have is that it is not an epic story, but it feels like it is trying to be. There’s nothing wrong with writing a story that’s not an epic, and I’m not really going to get into the differences between what I consider epic storytelling and “smaller” stories, but suffice to say the writing style and detail seems modelled for the epic format, when the story is really more of a character piece.
  • Because frankly, not much happens: A prince dies in an unsuccessful Viking raid on a farmhouse. A follow-up raid gets stopped initially through the efforts of the English and then in Wales by three characters taking a walk through a forest and one self-sacrifice. Two characters who barely talk to each other the entire book get married, ostensibly aiding the integration of the Welsh and the English.
  • Given the lack of Momentous Events in the plot, one might assume character arcs will make up the difference. Unfortunately the characters don’t change all that much either. Two characters come to grips with their fathers and the rest come to grips with the existence of fairies (more on this later).
  • So what we’re left with is a snapshot of a slow change in the socio-political world of northwest Europe. The Vikings are losing strength, the Anglo-Saxons are gaining in military strength and becoming more civilized. The events in the book are merely the continuation (not even the culmination!) of trends that have been continuing since Alfred became King.
  • Kay seems to be increasingly interested in his Christian characters getting hit over the head with pagan mysticism. It was a major plot event in the Sarantine books, but here it is almost the only plot event. Unfortunately, this doesn’t work for me. Watching Christian characters wrestle with their faith in the face of what is nearly (if not outright) proof that it is either false or hugely incomplete is not profound, it’s depressing and not in any way applicable to real life (where such proof is unlikely to be forthcoming). In Last Light of the Sun (as opposed to, say, Lions of Al-Rassan) there’s not even a religious tolerance case to be made, since belief in Celtic mysticism has already faded from organized practice to vague superstition by just about everyone.
  • Although Kay’s dialogue remains well-written, in this book his characters seemed almost entirely without flaws, unless you count the minor insecurities (OK, and a psycho-somatic illness) the male characters work their way through during the book. Alun’s problem is dealing with grief for his brother’s death, but all of his rash actions prove rewarding. Alfred’s fevers don’t even effect him during the book’s time frame.
  • Then there is the awkward writing. I don’t remember to what extent this showed up in previous books, but here Kay is almost obsessed with going into “ripples of fate” bit-character life stories about once a chapter. While often interesting in and of themselves, ultimately it is tiresome to be constantly diverted from the plot. Then there are the first-person-plural asides about the way “we live our lives”–which is just clumsy.
  • Finally, it is frustrating how little follow-through there is on what I felt were important or interesting parts of the narrative. For example, there isn’t any examination of how the Norse mythology causes (or reflects) some large differences in cultural values besides some half-hearted mentions of Valhalla. In fact, Norse mythology in general is given the short shrift, which is disappointing since I find it fascinating. Then there are other incidents, like the execution of the cornered Vikings by archer, where the cleric protests but nothing ever comes of it despite this being a much more important point than faeries in any historical context. And if he’s writing a fantasy novel and not historical fiction, why is the correspondance so rigorously 1:1?

While I originally thought it was a great idea to mine history for themes and settings, I think Kay is in a rut. I think he is less and less willing to depart from actual historical events and people. I hope in the future he goes back to his Tigana strategy of using history to inform without actually being all there really is.

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