Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana

Rachel Manija Brown penned this review. 

Much of the best fantasy is concerned with names.

In Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea novels, to know the true name of a man or a woman or a dragon is to hold their life in the palm of your hand. In The Lord of the Rings, the most devoted minions of the dark lord, the Witch King and the Mouth of Sauron, gave up their very names in the service of evil. In Lloyd Alexander’s Chronicles of Prydain, Taran’s unknown parentage, symbolized by his lack of a last name, is the key to his destiny.

The sure mark of a bad fantasy novel is one in which the names are clumsy or careless. A uniform culture in which the names are randomly derived from widely varying sources — Fionas rubbing elbows with Fatimas and Fleurs — suggests the lack of a thought-out background. The over-plentiful use of apostrophes may lead the reader to muse on what sort of sound they’re intended to represent: a click? A glottal stop? Spitting on the ground? As Emma Bull once suggested, vomiting?

And while it was hardly John M. Ford’s fault that years after writing about a doomed and heroic femme fatale in The Final Reflection, a pharmaceutical company decided that Rogaine was the perfect name for their hair restorer, I still smile (and not in a nice way) when I think of Allanon, Terry Brooks’ twelve-stepping druid.

Names are power. Names are identity. Names reveal culture and hint at class. Names may be symbolic or ironic or weighted with psychological baggage. The ultimate in amnesia is to forget one’s own name.

Tigana delves more deeply into the symbolism and power of names than any work of fantasy since the Earthsea books, but takes the concept in an entirely new direction. It’s not about the inherent magic of names, but about their political, cultural, and emotional resonance. And it’s not about the power of all names, but of one: Tigana.

The setting is a land resembling Renaissance Italy, where magic is real but rare, the province of a handful of rural folk in touch with the rhythms of the land, of fey creatures who appear only in glimpses, and of a very few but very powerful human sorcerers.

There is quite a bit of backstory, which is appropriate for a book in which the use, abuse, and eradication of history and memory play a central role. Years before the main story begins, two sorcerers, Brandin and Alberico, separately set out to conquer the peninsula of the Palm. Alberico is a standard Dark Lord with the cunning of a dictator and the manners of a thug. He snaps up several provinces and rules them in typically tyrannical fashion.

Brandin is a more complex character, a man capable of great love and great cruelty, a conqueror who makes sure that the carriages run on time, a gentleman, a patron of the arts, and the perpetrator of more than one horrifyingly imaginative act of vengeance. When he gets tied up battling Alberico, he sends his beloved son to subdue the province of Tigana. When the son is killed in battle with the Tiganans, the enraged and grief-stricken Brandin sweeps in, takes over the province, and takes steps not merely to rule it, but to erase its people and culture from the map, forever.

He casts a spell which destroys the name “Tigana.” Except for those who were born there before the spell went into effect, no one can say, hear, or write the name. There can be no rallying call for a country whose very name has vanished.

That spell is a potent metaphor for the destruction of a native culture and language by foreign invaders — a process which has a long grim history across the globe, and which continues to this day. Kay was inspired by Translations, a poetic and bitter play by Brian Friel, in which an English survey team comes to an Irish village and changes the place names from Gaelic to English. Tigana takes the metaphor one step further, literalizing it in a way which can only be done in fantasy.

The plot of Tigana at first appears to be scattered. One thread deals with a young musician from Tigana who falls in with a group of Tiganan rebels conspiring to restore their land. The other plotline concerns the conflicted relationship between King Brandin and Dianora, a woman from Tigana who becomes his concubine with the intention of getting close enough to take revenge, but who falls in love with him before she gets the chance.

Initial appearance to the contrary, Tigana is an extremely focused book. The multiple plotlines not only come together at the end, but each bit of story and every character represents some aspect of the central themes of the destruction of culture, the complex relationship between the conqueror and the conquered, and the moral ambiguity of even the most justified war.

For example, the sex scenes serve a larger purpose than adding spice, or even revealing character and advancing the plot. The first, an encounter in a broom closet, turns out to be one character’s desperate attempt to distract the other from overhearing the details of a plot. A later scene has an older woman introducing a young man to the decadent pleasures of coercion and pain. The presence of sex always involves some aspect of dishonesty, violence, or coldness. The very act of love has been perverted by oppression.

But when a strange magical battle fought with sheaves of wheat provides the first victory for the Tiganans, the barren fields bloom and two of the fighters make gentle and passionate love on a carpet of flowers. The tide has turned.

This is an epic on a grand scale, studded with grim battles, larger-than-life characters, plot twists, dramatic irony, and operatic flourishes. It’s beautifully written, engrossing, and raises profound and relevant questions. Kay has written more polished novels (everything since) and more touching ones (everything before), but only Tigana has a perfect balance between the two. And the central concept of is nothing less than inspired.

Tigana is a classic. No one who reads it will ever forget its name.

(Roc, 1991)

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