Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publication Date: 1/1/1990
Blurb (GR): Eight of the nine provinces of the Peninsula of the Palm, on a world with two moons, have fallen to the warrior sorcerers Brandin of Ygrath and Alberico of Barbadior. Brandin's younger son is slain in a battle with the principality of Tigana, which the grief-stricken sorcerer then destroys. Years later, a small band of survivors, led by Alessan, last prince of Tigana's royal house wages psychological warfare, planting seeds for the overthrow of the two tyrants. At the center of these activities are Devin, a gifted young singer; Catriana, a young woman pursued by suspicions of
her family's guilt; and Duke Sandre d'Astibar, a wily resistance leader thought dead. Meanwhile, at Brandin's court, Dianora, his favorite concubine and--unknown to anyone, another survivor of Tigana--struggles between her growing love for the often gentle tyrant and her desire for vengeance. Gradually
the scene is set for both conquerors to destroy each other and free a land.
While reading this book over the past month, I thought a lot about the differences between youth and adulthood, between young beliefs and mature ones. And I think that maybe our youth is the only time that we can hold simple, firm convictions. Maybe it’s the only time that it’s possible to believe completely that love will conquer all, or that there are good guys and bad guys, or that if we try hard enough, we can achieve anything we dream about. In our youth, we can say things like, “I would never…” and feel completely certain that it’s true. I think that a lot of maturing into an adult involves being proven painfully wrong, again and again.
I feel like I lost a bit of my youth while reading this book. Don’t get me wrong; I loved it. It’s going on my favorites shelf and I’ll probably re-read it dozens of times. But I hate it a little bit too, because it has now rendered so many of my favorite fantasy novels (some that I used to even consider grey and nuanced) flat and simplistic by comparison.
This is the most adult fantasy novel I’ve ever read. And I don’t just mean that in the sense that it contains sex, violence, and heads exploding like rotten fruit. I mean that in the sense that nothing in this book is black and white, nothing is simple, nothing is held sacred. Fantasy used to be a genre where I could sometimes comfortably escape into a few simple ideals, but this book has proven to me that even a fantasy novel can be gritty and realistic. And now I feel like nothing less will do.
If this were a typical fantasy, it would be about a rag-tag band of comrades coming together to make a long journey and reclaim their home from the curse of some distant, evil goliath. The foes battled along the way would be disposable creatures – orcs, giants, spiders, dragons – beings that are murdered with little compunction. The final battle would end in a massive celebration and all would be right with the world.
But this is not a typical fantasy. This book is about an entire generation robbed of its very identity. It’s about the
children born to the losing side of a great war, and the terrible legacy that they must bear. It’s about collateral damage – not just faceless creatures, but people with homes and families, friends, the one you love, yourself. It's about how a fight for peace can necessitate horrible violence. It’s about the never-ending nature of war.
It’s about this:
“The lesson of her days, Dianora thought, was simply this: that love was not enough. Whateverthe songs of the troubadours might say. Whatever hope it might seem to offer, love was simply not enough to bridge the chasm in her world.”
“’The land is never truly dead. It can always come back. Or what is the meaning of the cycle of seasons and years?’ She wiped her tears away and looked at him.
His expression in the darkness was much too sad for a moment such as this. She wished she knew a way to dispel that sorrow, and not only for tonight. He said, ‘That is mostly true, I suppose. Or true for the largest things. Smaller things can die. People, dreams, a home.’”
“He carried, like baggage, like a cart yoked to his shoulders, like a round stone in his heart, images of his people, their world destroyed, their name obliterated. Truly obliterated: a sound that was drifting, year by year, further away from the shores of the world of men, like some tide withdrawing in the grey hour of a winter dawn. Very like
such a tide, but different as well, because tides came back.”
The “heroes” are deeply flawed – capable of violence, enslavement, and the sacrifice of thousands of their own people in battle in the pursuit of their goal. The “villain” is a very grey character and in the end, is just a man. A man with too much power perhaps and too much grief, but still a man, capable of feeling great love and deserving of sympathy.
The relationships are intense and heartbreaking and I wept ugly tears more than once. I love that we get to see the conflict through the eyes of the long-toiling Baerd and Alessan, but also through the eyes of the youthful and naively passionate Devin. And we get to see Devin mature in all the hardest ways
“Devin suddenly felt as if he could not bear it anymore. Alessan’s quite acquiescence was as a final blow in his own heart. He felt torn open, wounded by the hard truths of the world, by the passing of things. He lowered his head to the windowsill and wept like a child in the presence of something too large for his capacity.”
Dianora broke my heart the most though, with her systematic destruction of her own self, her own happiness,
all in the name of this terrible legacy:
”She stopped and looked down at the flowers, their fragile petals shaken by the breeze; but her thoughts were back with Brandin’s fairy tale of the far away princess born under summer stars, cradled on such flowers.
She closed her eyes then, knowing that this would not do. And slowly, deliberately, searching out pain as a spur, a goad, she built up a mental image of her father riding away, and then of her mother, and then of Baerd among the soldiers in the square. When she opened her eyes to go on there were no fairy tales in her heart.”
Obviously I loved the writing. If I could find a way to include five or six more quotes in this review, I probably would. His prose is powerful and lyrical and incredibly evocative. This is a real, heavy duty, dense, you’re-going-to-need-to-look-at-that-map kind of fantasy and I hesitate to recommend it to those who only enjoy the “lighter” fantasies. However, I think that if you enjoy capital F Fantasy even a little bit, this book is definitely not to be missed.
Oh, okay. One more quote.
“His intelligence stretched her to the limits, and then
changed what those limits were."