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Book Review: Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay’s Tigana is the best-written fantasy I’ve read in a while.

Cover of Tigana, by Guy Gavriel Kay.

It wasn’t just the prose that got me (although Kay’s phrasing is often gorgeous). I loved the setup: instead of having one villain threatening to take over the known world, Kay has two, both sorcerers. And they’ve already divided up the Palm, a hand-shaped peninsula based on the boot of early Renaissance Italy. The resulting balance is precarious. “Today only the power of one keeps the magic of the other from being wielded as it was when they conquered us,” a resident of the Palm notes near the beginning. “If we take them then we must take them both—or make them bring down each other.”

Better still, Kay made me want to root for one of the sorcerers. While his rival is a bit of a cliché, doing evil for evil’s sake, the more powerful of the two is a man of passion, a sympathetic character who does evil in the name of love. His most heinous act is one of fatherly revenge: after the Palm’s foremost province kills his son, the sorcerer uses his magic to erase the province’s name and history from the memories of everyone but its survivors. Alessan, the last prince of that province (and the speaker of the quote above), is as close as the story comes to a protagonist. But he never gets a chapter from his point of view. Instead, we see him through the eyes of a rotating cast of supporters, almost all of them likable. The worldbuilding is diverse too. Kay excels in creating a sense of deep, varied history for the Palm’s provinces and its neighbors.

The story starts slowly, however. As I said, I came to love Kay’s prose, with its sentences that are occasionally as intricate as the plot. But the complexity was a barrier to entry until I got used to his style. (Which, to be fair, isn’t unusual for me. I remember balking at the opening pages of Colleen McCullough’s First Man in Rome. Then I adapted, and before I knew it, it was 4:00 in the morning.) I also think Kay could have cut the prologue and the first chapter—neither proved essential. And I felt Alessan’s final plan was overly reliant on assumptions and undisclosed knowledge about the book’s magic system; the conclusion wasn’t wholly satisfying.

Yet while I was on board, the journey was exquisite. Tigana is a fantasy to get lost in. Well worth the time.

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