Note: contains some spoilers which will only encourage you to read Tigana.
Of all the books I read in my early twenties, Tigana is definitely one that stands out, and one that I re-read frequently. It brings to life more than just a story of magic, sorcery and a fantastical landscape – it could almost be called an essay on human nature, cause and effect, and the ideals that people build for themselves, hidden within a novel. Each time I read it, a different theme stays in my mind to be ruminated over. In a similar fashion to how he wrote Under Heaven, Kay’s language, his storytelling, the character building, the themes of humanity and its vagaries, make this more than a book that can be simply classed as ‘fantasy’. As Kay himself says,
The underlying ideas, for me, had to do with how people rebel when they can’t rebel, how we behave when the world has lost its bearings, and how shattered self-respect can ripple through to the most intimate levels of our lives. […] These are ambitious elements for what was also meant to be a romantic adventure. […] But beneath them all lies the idea of using the fantasy genre in just this way: letting the universality of fantasy—of once upon a time—allow escapist fiction to be more than just that, to also bring us home. I tried to imagine myself with a stiletto not a bludgeon, slipping the themes of the story in quietly while keeping a reader turning pages well past bedtime.
Tigana is set is on a planet with two moons, and deals with a peninsula called The Palm, subjugated by two sorcerers. It is mainly the story of a people under a spell…
‘Brandin of Ygrath did something more than all of this. He gathered his magic, the sorcerous power that he had, and he laid down a spell upon that land such as had never even been conceived before. And with that spell he . . . tore its name away. He stripped that name utterly from the minds of every man and woman who had not been born in that province. It was his deepest curse, his ultimate revenge. He made it as if we had never been. Our deeds, our history, our very name. And then he called us Lower Corte, after the bitterest of our ancient enemies among the provinces.’ Behind him now Devin heard a sound and realized that Catriana was weeping. Baerd said, ‘Brandin made it come to pass that no one living could hear and then remember the name of that land, or of its royal city by the sea or even of that high, golden place of towers on the old road from the mountains. He broke us and he ravaged us. He killed a generation, and then he stripped away our name.’
… and an attempt at its restoration. It is also, however, about rebellion against both the tyrants who rule The Palm. A group of rebels, whose sole purpose is to restore Tigana’s name, are the focus of the book. It is fascinating that the entire story is dependent upon several people, all of whom have essentially the same purpose, but deal with it in such different ways. Obliteration of one’s identity is complex. What is one’s identity. Is it solely nationality? Is it simply personal? Or is it a combination of both? When Tigana’s identity ceases, some just continue to live, others sow the seeds of dissension, and yet others flee oppression, but do nothing to rid themselves of it, even to the extent of burying it in their past and never letting it out. But as we all know, secrets have a way of revealing themselves, and when they do, once again, people deal with them in the same ways they did originally – ignoring it, taking action, or hiding from it. Kay says…
Tigana is in good part a novel about memory: the necessity of it, in cultural terms, and the dangers that come when it is too intense. … The world today offers more than enough examples of both pitfalls: ignorance of history and its lessons, and the refusal to let the past be past.
So, what of the consequences of hiding or glossing over the past? Revenge? Acceptance? Indifference?
Shame combined with anger at those who let the past remain in the past is one of the main emotions that comes up, and Catriana is a prime example. She is angry at her father for hiding the truth…
He went on, ‘You are still a living person, Catriana. With a heart, a life to live, access to friendship, even to love. Why are you sealing yourself down to the one thing only?’ And she heard herself reply: ‘Because my father never fought. He fled Tigana like a coward before the battles at the river.’
For this man, his personal life and family were perhaps more important than national identity. His identity was his family. Or was it something else? Did he simply leave for self-preservation? Either way, to him it mattered more to leave and never talk about it, than to do anything. But to his daughter, it was shame personified, cowardly and traitorous rather than practical or pragmatic. Who is to say which is right and what is wrong?
To a young man like Devin, who never knew Tigana, the knowledge simply spurs him to action, because he feels like he found somewhere to belong. Adventure is calling and how can he resist, particularly for such a cause?
For Dianora it is more a goal to work towards, given that all else in her life has fallen apart. But doing is not as easy as thinking as she finds out. Nor is living with your memories and knowing that perhaps you do not wish to change your destiny after all.
And to Alessan, it is not just a matter of restoring Tigana’s name, but a fight against tyranny and retaining a balance of power in the Palm. By virtue of what he is, but also who he is, he is not content simply to overthrow the man who caused his nation’s loss of identity, but also thinks about the results of a toppling of one of the two currently balanced powers that control The Palm. This is a legitimate argument. Look at our own present-day struggles – Israel-Palestine, Libya, Ukraine… the list is endless. Our past – invasions and rebellions galore. But what is one to do in such a situation? And what happens after the situation is resolved, one way or another. What is the guarantee that new leadership would be better? Better for whom? Again, I quote from Kay’s afterword…
The debate between Alessan and Erlein is meant as a real one, not a plot device. The assertion made […] that the roads of the eastern Palm are safer under Alberico than they were under Sandre d’Astibar is intended to raise a question about the legitimacy of pursuing one’s quarrels—even one’s quest for a people’s obliterated identity and past—by using others as unwilling instruments. By the same token, this is also true of the rage Alessan’s mother feels, seeing her son coolly attempting to shape a subtle, balanced political resolution for the entire peninsula, where she sees only a matter of hatred and blood and Tigana’s lost name.
Kay’s writing style is lyrical, and holds a great depth of feeling and musicality. I will risk a few minor spoilers (don’t worry, I won’t let the cat out of the bag!) by quoting three of the passages that most moved me, and that evoked empathetic response, even to the extent of wanting to draw or paint the emotions I felt in that moment of reading it. They are among my favourite parts of the book… I have left them to the end so that if you would rather not read them, the review ends here.
At the beginning of spring, just as the winds began to change, before the last snows melted in Certando and Tregea and the southern reaches of what had been Tigana, came the three Ember Days that marked the turning of the year. No fires not already burning were lit anywhere in the Palm. The devout fasted for at least the first of the three days. The bells of the Triad temples were silent. Men stayed within their doors at night, especially after darkfall on the first day which was the Day of the Dead. There were Ember Days in autumn as well, halfway through the year, when the time of mourning came for Adaon slain on his mountain in Tregea, when the sun began to fade as Eanna mourned and Morian folded in upon herself in her Halls underground. But the spring days inspired a colder dread, especially in the countryside, because so much depended upon what would follow them. Winter’s passing, the season of sowing, and the hope of grain, of life, in the summer’s fullness to come.
Devin does as he is told. Wincing, gritting his teeth against pain, against grief, he poises the sharp slim blade and brings it down on Sandre’s exposed fingers, cleaving through. He hears someone cry out. Alais, not the Duke. But in the moment the knife cuts clean through flesh to grind against stone there is a swift and dazzling flash. Sandre’s darkened face is illuminated by a corona of white light that flares like a star about his head and dies away, leaving them blinded for a moment in the after-image of its glow.
He saw Adaon on the mountainside in Tregea, naked and magnificent. He saw him torn apart in frenzy and in flowing blood by his priestesses— suborned by their womanhood for this one autumn morning of every turning year to the deeper service of their sex. Shredding the flesh of the dying god in the service of the two goddesses who loved him and who shared him as mother, daughter, sister, bride, all through the year and through all the years since Eanna named the stars. Shared him and loved him except on this one morning in the falling season. This morning that was shaped to become the harbinger, the promise of spring to come, of winter’s end. This one single morning on the mountain when the god who was a man had to be slain. Torn and slain, to be put into his place which was the earth. To become the soil, which would be nurtured in turn by the rain of Eanna’s tears and the moist sorrowings of Morian’s endless underground streams twisting in their need. Slain to be reborn and so loved anew, more and more with each passing year, with each and every time of dying on these cypress-clad heights. Slain to be lamented and then to rise as a god rises, as a man does, as the wheat of summer fields. To rise and then lie down with the goddesses, with his mother and his bride, his sister and his daughter, with Eanna and Morian under sun and stars and the circling moons, the blue one and the silver. Devin dreamt, terribly, that primal scene of women running on the mountainside, their long hair streaming behind them as they pursued the man-god to that high chasm above the torrent of Casadel. He saw their clothing torn from them as they cried each other on to the hunt. Saw branches of mountain trees, of spiny, bristling shrubs, claw their garments away, saw them render themselves deliberately naked for greater speed to the chase, seizing blood-red berries of sonrai to intoxicate themselves against what they would do high above the icy waters of Casadel. He saw the god turn at last, his huge dark eyes wild and knowing, both, as he stood at the chasm brink, a stag at bay at the deemed, decreed, perennial place of his ending. And Devin saw the women come upon him there, with their flying hair and blood flowing along their bodies and he saw Adaon bow his proud, glorious head to the doom of their rending hands and their teeth and their nails. And there at the end of the chase Devin saw that the women’s mouths were open wide as they cried to each other in ecstasy or anguish, in unrestrained desire or madness or bitter grief, but in his dream there was no sound at all to those cries. Instead, piercing through the whole of that wild scene among cedar and cypress on the mountainside, the only thing Devin heard was the sound of Tregean shepherd pipes playing the tune of his own childhood fever, high and far away. And at the end, at the very last, Devin saw that when the women came upon the god and caught him and closed about him at that high chasm over Casadel, his face when he turned to his rending was that of Alessan.
A book designer, Arati has always enjoyed books and the world of imagination that they open up. She is extremely accident-prone, due entirely to absent-mindedness caused by thinking about books and their contents, instead of paying attention to what she's actually supposed to be doing. She reads multiple books simultaneously, and her choices range from cookbooks and design manuals to fantasy, crime and Regency romances.
She lives and works in London, UK and sells her art on paper and textiles at Etsy