Book Review: “Tigana” by Guy Gavriel Kay

American 2008 reprint cover

Title: Tigana
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Format: Novel, stand-alone
Pages: 673
Published: 1990
Reason for Beginning: Recommended to me by numerous sources as one of the truly great fantasy novels of recent times.
Reason for Finishing: It’s one of the most engrossing and well-written books I’ve read.
Spoiler-free Synopsis: In the Peninsula of the Palm, eight of nine kingdoms have been conquered by two sorcerer-tyrants from across the sea, Emperor Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico, a minor noble of Barbadior trying to make a name for himself, the land split politically between them as they eye each other warily. Young Devin, an excellent singer for a famed music troupe, finds himself drawn into an extremely covert conspiracy to overthrow the oppressors and unite the Palm in freedom. Things, however, get much more complicated than anyone could have predicted. Great sorrows are revealed and inflicted, amazing mysteries discovered, surprising friends are found, expectations are dashed and resurrected and twisted around, and everything builds to a conclusion that is really, outstandingly good.
Story Re-readability: The story is fascinating and exciting even in retrospect, and would surely benefit from a few rereads. But see “Recommendation” for my reservations.
Author Re-readability: High. His style carefully balances beauty and clarity, and it’s kind of amazing how he manages to keep the many subplots, histories, and character motivations straight enough for the reader to understand.
Recommendation: Here’s where I am conflicted. The book is one of the best I have read, of fantasy or any other genre, really. However, it has about four or five sex scenes that are, shall we say, very R-rated. All are fairly graphic and abnormal in some way, and they are clearly about sex itself, not love. They come across as quite vulgar, and sometimes almost ridiculous, compared to the elegance of the rest of the book. They will be hard to get out of your head.

It is all the more regrettable, because Kay does use all but two (in my opinion) of those scenes to advance the plot in important ways, and thus they are difficult to avoid. In the Afterward, he says he wanted to explore “the relationship between conquered peoples and an unstable sexuality: what [he has] called ‘the insurrections of the night.’” Who says there is such a relationship? The most disgusting and gratuitous of the scenes concludes with a brief conversation that attempts to explain this theme, but just because the characters state that their perversion is what happens when “they are no longer free” because of the “laws of the day that bind us and cannot be broken now” does not suffice to excuse it or make any truly logical case in its favor. I find the whole notion nonsensical. Kay could have easily found other, much better and less offensive ways to explore the psychological effects of conquest. The scenes greatly harmed my opinions of the characters involved and kept me from fully sympathizing with them. Embarrassing to read, they are also so gratuitously detailed that it seems Kay is writing out his own perverse and lustful fantasies. It’s so very disappointing in a novel that has such care and tact in its other elements.

Since I believe such scenes should not be depicted graphically in words or pictures, that it is both fundamentally wrong and unnecessary to do so, I cannot in good conscience recommend this book, especially to anyone who believes they should avoid that sort of thing. Were these scenes not present, however, I would mark Tigana as required reading for anyone interested in fantasy, and for anyone intending to write a novel with any especially complicated plot. The review below will not touch any further on these particular scenes.

Key Thoughts

Finnish cover

[NB: the truly central and original premise of Tigana, beyond what is discussed in the Synopsis, is revealed as something of a twist in the book, and I think it works best that way. Please avoid reading the back of the book, the book’s Wikipedia article, or any other synopsis which is likely to mention this key element. Other sources are quick to mention it, but since the main character is in the dark for a couple tense chapters, it’s good that the reader is also. I will not discuss this crucial point anywhere in my review, except to say that it’s brilliant.]

Where to begin with such an expansive book? Perhaps with the setting. No, I’ll get to the setting next. First, I have to get another thing off of my chest. Chapters 4 and 5 of Tigana may together form the most exciting sequence in a novel I’ve ever read, and they’re mostly talking. It encapsulates all that is best about Kay’s style, I think. There’s so much information he has to impart, to the reader and the characters, and in such a tremendously dramatic way, that any misstep would have made the whole thing feel too forced, or too boring, or too melodramatic, or too confusing. But it works, it all works. It had me laughing out loud at the awesomeness of each new secret, each new reveal. And this is still practically at the beginning, before the plot proper has even started! Yet these two chapters remain my favorite out of the whole book.

Ah, the setting. The Palm is a peninsula very much inspired by late medieval Italy, as Kay himself explains in the Afterward and on his website. Both are fertile, heavily urban lands with a glorious past, but a politically-fractured present. Both feature lots of in-fighting between the native kingdoms/cities that makes them targets for manipulative neighboring empires who play the kingdoms as pawns in their own quests for dominance. Both feature cultures where family and music are preeminent. Of course, these elements alone are not unique at all in fantasy novels, but the flavor of the world in things like the importance of wine and olives in economies, the high regard for art and music, and the mostly Latinate names (Catriana, Rinaldo, Adreano, Rovigo, Sandre, Tomasso, etc.) lend it a fairly Italian feel, though. There are also a number of French-inspired names that reflect the heavy influence of France in the Italian peninsula (names like Devin, Erlein, Alienor [French for Eleanor]). It gets the specifics of such a world right, so that it feels living and organic, with a history that has taken many of the twists and turns of our own. I’ve just never encountered a fantasy novel with that atmosphere, and I like it. When the world seems both familiar and foreign, you can buy into it easier without getting bored with overt real-world similarities.

Croatian cover

The basic plot is familiar to tons of fantasy-readers, but the details are what change everything. Take the main villains. We’ve seen plenty of sorcerer-tyrants before, and many of them blur into either a Sauron or Saruman archetype. But Brandin and Alberico are fascinating precisely for how different they are from these archetypes, and from each other. Brandin rules a vast and cultured empire, with a professional standing army that is loyal and well-paid. He is supported by a layered bureaucracy and exceedingly complex imperial customs, but is still defined by the intensity of his charisma and the brilliance with which he manipulates and inspires people. That’s crucial: a good many people in this world don’t see Brandin as a villain. He rules pretty equally through fear and love, and neither is to be underestimated in those who serve him. In contrast, Alberico is a minor noble of the empire of Barbadior who hired an army of mercenaries with which to carve out a personal kingdom, the plan being to then build up his strength and make a forcible bid for the Barbadian throne. Whereas Brandin stands as a cultural equal with the people he conquered, Alberico is clearly rougher and less used to the sort of sophistication and luxury his oppressed subjects used to live in. He’s more insecure in position and tempestuous in his emotions, with results that are often insanely brutal. As such, he rules tenuously through fear alone. The people of the Palm do not like either lord, as both have brought foreign armies to tramp over their fields and tax them ruthlessly, but as the years pass the difference in their respective ruling styles has a huge influence on the thickening plot.

In fact, Kay seems to really like Brandin a whole lot more than I do, that’s for sure. There’s no mistake that Brandin does need to be defeated by our heroes, but Kay seems sad that this is the case. The character is certainly complex, and I love the subtlety and delicacy with which he is developed. Brandin truly rewards those he trusts and those who serve him well, and he is not beyond genuine love and affection. His charisma is founded on this reality, as well as on his ability to make peoples’ heads explode with a casual hand-wave. He is much like many a true historical tyrant, in that sense: Alexander the Great, Caesar Augustus, Charlemagne, Napoleon. It just seemed that his charisma was affecting Kay a bit as well. Mostly in the long scenes with Dianora; although some of that reflects Dianora’s own conflicted feelings about him. (No, I won’t explain that for those who haven’t read the book. It would take too long.)

The balance between the tyrants is delicate. While Brandin’s imperial army is better trained, most of it has to be stationed across the sea in his other holdings, even his home kingdom so as to discourage conspirators. Alberico’s army in the Palm itself is thus larger and more ruthless, the mercenaries being known as fearsome fighters (though of wavering loyalty). However, Brandin is far the more powerful sorcerer, enough to keep the scales hanging equally. This remains the situation for most of the book, but it is pretty incredible how many other factors Kay is able to introduce into their conflict without any of it seeming forced.

There’s actually little outright magic in this book, but when it appears, boy is it worth it. Maybe only five or six true instances, but you remember them. A desperate teleport, with reasonably realistic effects that linger, a head exploding after a casual handwave, a few simple-but-effective illusions, and others. All well integrated into a world that feels almost historical. I rather like that approach, actually. While stories that gleefully combine all sorts of fantastic creatures and flashy magic can be great fun, and great literature too, I am often fascinated by stories that use magic like a powerful spice, used in concentrated doses only in the parts where it is needed

I have written at great length about the villains, but nothing about the heroes! Well, what to say? Devin is an interesting protagonist. On one hand, he fits the bill for a young protagonist who learns of the intricacies of the world as the reader does, and grows from a fairly immature guy into a much wiser, more perceptive fellow (in about a year’s time). On the other hand, he is never at any point an idiot, like many typical young fantasy heroes. He possesses a near-photographic memory that enables him to absorb tons of new, confusing information all at once, and then later on (perhaps that night) think it all through and make sense of it. This is a great trait for a person the reader spends so much time with. It means the plot never has to be dumbed down just so the reader can know explicitly what is going on at a given moment, and yet you will always learn what you need to learn on time, and in a manner that you can remember and comprehend it.

Which highlights one of Kay’s greatest strengths: his ability to render incredibly complex stories and multiple twisting backstories totally coherent and dramatic. I never once felt lost while reading Tigana. Yet it felt more complex than nearly any other piece of fantasy I’ve read, except for The Lord of the Rings. On the occasion that he does use an infodump, it comes so artfully and naturally that you hardly notice (although there are a lot of flashbacks in this book. A lot.). All the subplots unfold with a kind of quivering, exultant intricacy, like a network of glittering spider webs that, when one steps back to observe them all, form a brilliant work of art. I mean, everything fits. All the complex pieces, the small and the great, the personality quirks and the diversions, everything has a place in the grand narrative that is well thought-out and purposeful. Part of the joy of reading the book is discovering how previous events that weren’t thought to be special by anyone have in fact changed everything for the characters. You cannot predict this book. It’s exhilarating.

His dialogue is also intelligent, particularly in the way that characters tend to be aware of the consequences of their actions. The killing of soldiers of the tyrants does not pass without analysis and some regret (for all have their own friends, family, and cares), nor does the fact that the Palm is at considerable peace under the Tyrants, and that the onset of freedom for which the heroes yearn could also bring a return to the brutal infighting which had previously characterized it. Also, take this exchange. One of the heroes, a prince, has the power to bind a wizard to him, to do his will. He does this once, through subterfuge and deception, because he believes (correctly) that their plans against the Tyrants will fail without a wizard’s aid. But does that excuse the forcible binding of a man against his will? Here is a paraphrase, with mostly the original dialogue, from a short essay on Tigana.

“I am not a tool!” the magician cries out. “I am a free and living soul with my own destiny!”
And the prince relies, “I understand what you have said and why you will hate me, and I can tell you that I grieve for what necessity demands.”
And ultimately the magician points out, “You will forgive me if I remain unmoved by speeches about freedom tonight. Before the sun went down I was a free man on an open road. I am now a slave.”

I thought this was well-handled, and the many conversations between these two characters were so important and interesting. Both characters are given equal respect and understanding – one side is ultimately held to be right, but only in the very end of the book, and respect and sympathy for the “loser’s” position remains strong.

Canadian cover

Descriptions are evocative, even lyrical when they need to be, but Kay never drifts into abstraction. A Polish review notes the influence of Tolkien in some of Kay’s language, but injected with more life and blood. This is fair to say. Tolkien was a master of language that was convincingly archaic and mythical in nature, that immediately shot one’s mind into the mists of time, tale, and the heavens for which we yearn. Kay is capable of some of that, more than most Tolkien imitators, but evokes more the intricacies of human emotion and the grit of real places. But again, without descending into what might be called the modernist or postmodernist genre of “realism,” generally. It’s a polished, well-rounded style that Kay has, and it’s quite effective.

Sheesh, there are so many huge things I haven’t mentioned! The Aragorn-esque figure that is very cool, the female characters that I didn’t care for as much, despite them being given a lot of depth, the one female character I did like, but wasn’t on-page enough as I’d like, the surprising humor, the couple of lengthy digressions that did feel a bit like Big Lipped Alligator Moments, or the masterful descriptions (and use in plot) of music. Or even my favorite character! Which, for those who’ve read Tigana, is Duke Sandre d’Astibar. Most fascinating character to me, personally, and so very awesome.

I think I’ve about worn myself out by now. Perhaps I may return to add and edit this review. Hopefully I have given those who haven’t read Tigana a good idea of whether they want to, and have offered worthwhile thoughts about the book for those who have read it.


Kay, while a student at the University of Manitoba, knew Christopher Tolkien through a family connection, and helped Christopher Tolkien edit The Silmarillion for publication in 1974.

Other Reviews
From “Steam Trains and Ghosts”
From “From inside a rock, out comes a monkey”
From “Evenstarlight”
From Nick Matthews at maplemuse


  1. A. Setliffe says:

    😡 …great. a fascinating and brilliantly written book that would most-likely make me miserable because of gratuitous sexual content. *deep sigh* As much as I dislike the idea of abridging or “sanitizing” books, I wish I could read a copy of this one with the scenes you mention summarized. Normally I avoid that particular hypocrisy by accepting that books which would make me physically ill through graphic sex or violence, however worthwhile otherwise, are not worth the damage to my psyche. However, it seems from your review that this book could teach me something of the craft of writing, and that is extremely alluring.
    Alas, I cannot gauge the balance between damage and worth without reading it, and that would be too late. *grumble growl snarl, sigh* I suppose I shall have to err on the side of caution, however much it grieves me, and learn more of my craft in other places. At least I do not lack great teachers, though I am saddened that this one felt the need to unknowingly bar me from reading his work.

    1. David says:

      Aye, I think that’s the wise choice. Had I known about those scenes, I would not have read the book. And you know what? As masterful as the book was, and as much about the writing craft as I think I learned from it, I would have been okay without it. I read plenty of masterful authors who are equally skilled, if in different ways, and are far more nutritious in their morals. As for Kay’s other books, I will try to explore some others, in case he isn’t always throwing in sex, but I’m already avoiding his Fionavar Tapestry series because I’ve heard they have some of that as well. (which is double pity, because that series is supposed to be his fond tribute to Tolkien)

      1. A. Setliffe says:

        *nods* It is saddening to have to turn away from something one wants to read, or watch, or do, but sometimes it is the best choice. I’ve had to put books down before this, and the ones I didn’t put down but perhaps should have, have stayed with me far more than I would like. In truth, I appreciate the warning about the content.

  2. Sure, avoid great books because of a few sex scenes…
    Don’t worry, you won’t catch “sex” from reading. That’s for sure.

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