Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Tigana - Untranslated (SD #23)

Tigana (Guy Gavriel Kay)
Author: Matrim

Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the authors that stand out in the mass of fantasy writers. His unique style, rich and poetic, lends his books the quality of majestic, yet tenderly-lyrical poems. What with all that, I honestly admit that I didn’t much enjoy the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, I didn’t even get round to finishing the third book. I am, however, ready to argue with anyone that The Lions of Al-Rassan is a magnificent book, a true chef d'oeuvre. Because of these conflicting passions, I was quite uncertain as to what to expect from Tigana when I took it up.

The Story: The Peninsula of the Palm (so called because of its geographical shape), divided into small feudal provinces, is under the reign of two warring magician sovereigns. One of them, Brandin, in his desire to avenge his son’s death, magically erases the name and memory of the most beautiful of the nine provinces - Tigana. Most of its inhabitants emigrate into other parts of the peninsula due to the terrible oppression, exercised in their home land. Liberation and restoring the memory of Tigana seems impossible, but is it really so?

Positive: As I have already mentioned, Kay’s specific style makes the reading of each one of his books a true pleasure. What is more important, however, is that he employs his mastery of the language to convey the emotions of the characters in a brilliant way. Sorrow, joy, melancholy - the whole kaleidoscope of human emotions is not only shown, but also passed on to the reader. In other words, Martin can kill off a hundred of his characters, and I wouldn’t care, while the description of Tigana alone touched me, and I have no reasons for nostalgia. The experience the book offers cannot be put into words, it has to be, well, experienced, and it is this beauty that is the novel’s greatest asset.

Speaking of characters, a fact that deserves mention is that they are finely delineated, each and every one having their strong and weak sides, and they rise much higher than the level of The Average Fantasy Character™. There is a slight element of idealization present, but it is in keeping with the poetical qualities of the novel and it didn’t bother me at all. To some extent, the lack of "screen time" for each of the characters to become fully developed may be seen as a problem, but on the other hand, we don’t want a book that could barely be contained in ten Tomes, do we (now that’s not the kind of comment I would have expected from a devout fan of Jordan and Erikson – note: inner voice)? Moreover, Kay manages, in a few pages, to make a character more sympathetic, than Jordan can in 10 books.

The setting is not especially original- it is reminiscent of Renaissance Italy in its heyday with the Arts flourishing, the small city-states battling with each other, etc., although less so than the world of the The Lions…, which reminded one too much of Spain. At least here the events do not have their historical equivalents in the real world, which contributes to the suspense. The book looks more like an alternative history than a typical fantasy novel - no other sentient beings except humans, magic is almost none-existent, etc. It’s good that Kay has put effort into detailing the various peoples and customs in the different provinces, without putting them too much to fore, and thus neglecting the plot.

The plot itself, I should say, is not one of Tigana’s strong features. I like intrigues and conspiracies, but their quantity here is disproportionately large, compared to the other elements. Nevertheless, they are pleasingly above the average in quality. The rebel group’s struggle for Liberation is presented in a rather interesting way, and mostly, their doubts as to whether the great end they aspire to justifies their means. The conflict – although at first glance offering us another take on the "Good vs Evil" theme – turns out to be quite complex and multi-layered. The events remain unpredictable in their unfolding right until the very end and the story takes more than one surprising turn. The aforementioned struggle is not only about freedom, but also for the restoration of the memory of beautiful Tigana.

Unlike most of his colleagues, Kay is comfortable with describing sex-scenes, and he does it very well - without the coarse descriptions in Martin, or the laughable results produced by Jordan’s efforts.

Negative: The plot’s unraveling is somewhat too slow and, as a whole, the book could do better with 50-100 pages less. I have nothing against retrospections, but Kay gets a little carried away. Battles, which are usually one of the best characteristics of his books, are this time sub-standard.

Brandin’s character is rather unrealistic - the evil Tyrant, who’s ready to live his whole life expatriated, to erase the memory of Tigana, he subjects its population to genocide, yet in all else he reveals himself as a wonderful personality and a wise ruler. I have nothing against contradictions in one’s character, but here this "split personality" is wholly inexplicable.

The Deus ex machina assists the "good guys" all too often, and this is somewhat irritating. Not that it is not a standard practice in the genre, but I think I have to mention it.

The Epilogue is too short, and much remains unexplained.

Conclusion: Tigana is far from the perfect book, but I just cannot criticize it without forcing myself. The way Kay works with descriptions - the Dawn over the blue sea, the funeral dirges, the towers of Tigana - is so poetic, so beautiful and pure, that any shortcomings recede far in the background to make space for the storm of emotion. If you are carried off by the eloquence of Guy Gavriel Kay, you will stop noticing the negative aspects of the novel, the way a lover overlooks all bad qualities of his beloved.

And the people who’ve enjoyed The Lions of Al-Rassan will probably love Tigana.

Rating: 8.5/10

Translation: Trip

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