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Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay
Book Name: Tigana
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher(s): Penguin
Formatt: Hardcover / Paperback / Audiobook / eBook
Genre(s): Fantasy
Release Date: August 1990

Tigana is a book that came highly recommended. The back cover claims that it ‘is breathtaking in its vision, and changes forever the boundaries of fantasy fiction.’ It has many rave reviews, yet appears to have its fair share of critics, too.

First published in 1990, it’s a book I would have avoided back then, my own inner critic refusing to read yet another story about yet another group of people seeking to overthrow yet another dark lord. However, the purpose of Classics Corner is all about giving such books a go – not only to see what I’ve been missing, but to know if my opinions have changed or my tastes matured – so I picked up Tigana with some excitement and leapt straight in.

It’s an interesting concept; following the death of his son in battle, the tyrant king Brandin uses his powerful sorcery to erase all mention of the land of Tigana from existence, making it a name that can no longer be spoken, heard or remembered by anyone other than its surviving inhabitants. Two decades later, a band of heroes seek to overthrow the tyrant, and return the name of their homeland to all mouths and ears.

Unfortunately, I have to confess it’s been tough to read. It’s taken almost two months, which included stopping to read a couple of other, shorter books in between; something I never do. I wasn’t gripped right away, which is fair enough, but even after over 100 pages, I was still unsure. On return, I got into it, but stalled again. Another book later, I persevered and made it to the end.

The problem was, it felt somewhat bland at times; like reading a textbook, it was something that had to be done, rather that something I wanted to do. I hate to say it, but the only real reason I finished it was because I had to do this review.

Tigana is, admittedly, a well-written book. Technically, it is superb, the prose flowing and lyrical, making the world vivid and real. It’s a good story, one populated with characters as believable as anyone from history, so it’s therefore understandable that it is highly-praised. The world, although entirely fictional, is reminiscent of renaissance Italy, giving it a sure grounding in the mind of the reader.

Yet, despite the achievements and plaudits, there’s a certain feeling of detachment from the story, making it seem as if it happened long ago, rather than is happening now. Because of this, the story – however good – didn’t grip me, there was nothing enticing, no immediacy to draw me in and make me want to read more. I mentioned textbooks earlier, and that’s what Tigana felt like to me; a dry slice of history (admittedly, well-told) with up to as many as a dozen pages at a time with little or no dialogue.

The notes about the author tell of his involvement in helping Christopher Tolkien compile the Silmarillion, and this really shows, for Tigana can feel quite academic in its structure and descriptions. One such example is the final battle, where two armies meet. We’re told their strengths and some of their tactics, but little else. They are numbers, not men, disposable warriors while the battle between the opposing characters is the story’s focus.

While the technical aspects of the book and the author’s skill with words are to be applauded, the prose often felt cold and clinical, even lacking in emotion. There were times when I didn’t care what happened, so long as the story moved along. Characters often sounded the same, the dialogue sometimes little more than a summary of history between speech marks. Much is shown in flashback, so any jeopardy is rendered ineffective by our knowledge that the character has to have survived in order to be recalling the event in question.

Reviews are deeply personal. At the end of the day, it’s essentially one reader’s opinion, and that reader may find themselves either in a minority or championing an already established cause. Whatever my thoughts on Tigana, I can still appreciate that others will like it. It is a good book and although I won’t re-read it, I can appreciate it. Yet, I remain somewhat disappointed, as the score above shows. I hoped for so much more with this book, given the rave reviews I’d read about it, but the beauty of fiction (especially genre fiction) is that different books appeal to different people in different ways.

In Tigana, Guy Gavriel Kay has created a work that is vividly realistic, yet at the same time feels bogged down in the minutiae of detail. It’s a book that tells rather than shows and – for me, personally – this is the reason it disappoints. Story and characters can’t be faulted, yet there’s a vital, elusive spark missing that prevented me from enjoying it as much as I’d hoped. As I’ve already said, it felt very much like reading a work of non-fiction telling of days gone by, rather than a ‘here and now’ story to grip and enthral the reader. If the former was the author’s goal, then he’s succeeded admirably; if the latter, then I’m left feeling somewhat disappointed.



  1. Avatar Ellen says:

    I’m glad someone feels the same way – usually this book is very highly recommended. I also felt like it was long and it took me a while to read it because I didn’t have much emotional attachment to the story. I have to say though that his never book “Under Heaven” (the 2nd book I’ve read by Kay) was much better!

  2. Avatar rathie says:

    I would argue it is the best single volume fantasy book ever written.

  3. Avatar jwp says:

    I’m not sure I’d call it “the best single volume fantasy book ever written”, but I wouldn’t argue about it a whole lot, either.

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