‘Tigana’ by Guy Gavriel Kay – Classic Fantasy book review

Published: August 1990

The plot of Tigana is played out on a peninsula, resembling renaissance Italy, which is dominated by two opposing Sorcerer-Tyrants of terrible power. We see the story unfold through the eyes of Devin D’Asoli, a young singer who joins a quest to overthrow the sorcerers and restore the once glorious nation of Tigana. To make this endeavour even harder, one of the sorcerers has made everyone not born there, forget that nation ever existed (ouch!). Myth, magic and mayhem ensues.


I read Tigana for a book club (the Fantasy Book Club) and would not have normally chosen it for myself. My overall feeling was that I didn’t like this book. That is not to say that I did not get a lot out of it; Kay explores the themes of memory, tragic love, belonging, power, and magic in subtle and masterly ways. Unfortunately, the insufferably dull central character and signs the book never saw a proper editor, spoiled my whole experience of reading it.

Beware, here be spoilers!

The good bits
The unusual love story between one of the Sorcerer-Kings (Brandin of Ygrath) and Dianora was my favourite element of the story – and was a lot more compelling than the main hero’s quest! This sub-plot was the golden thread that ran through the book. The first is that the relationship that Kay created was beautiful; Dianora was a mistress, whose original purpose for achieving that position was to restore the fallen Tigana by destroying (not just killing) King Brandin. However, she fell deeply and tragically in love with the Sorcerer-King and eventually became the key to endearing him to his conquered subjects.  This tragic love story was so compelling that I found myself desperately wanting Devin and the heroes to lose in favour of Brandin.


This leads me on to the second thing I liked about Tigana. Throughout the book, Kay played with the morality of his characters. The good guys did terrible things in pursuit of their goals, the bad guys were sympathetic and sometimes even admirable. This resulted in me rarely knowing who to cheer for. For example, Prince Alessan and his troupe were ostensibly the heroes, fighting to restore their homeland. However, Kay had characters question whether Alessan’s victory would be a good thing or whether the peace and order that Brandin promises might have instead been preferable.

Infuriatingly, Kay undermined his owns interesting explorations of moral ambiguity by neatly reassuring us of the moral rightness of the heroes’ cause in the last few chapters.

The bad bits
My fundamental issue with this book was that I really didn’t enjoy reading it (quite fundamental I know). One part of this was been made to see most of the story through the eyes of Devin D’Asoli. I know when writers use an ‘everyman’ as a device for readers to see a world through, those character are not supposed to be particularly exciting.. However Devin was so incredibly boring and hardly even did anything instrumental to the plot. His main purpose seemed to have been to have a bondage sex encounter with one of the peninsular’s female rulers, which again served no purpose within the actual story!

BW - Tigana

Secondly, the writing was overly descriptive and there were whole sections and even chapters that felt completely unnecessary. I am not normally turned off by lengthy descriptive passages in books; I actually enjoy this style of writing when used by those who have used it best (Wilde and Proust are two classic examples). However, in Tigana, the description was lengthy but not particularly beautiful and there were too many sections that should have been cut by a good editor. Related to this, there is a notorious chapter in the middle of the book (Chapter 18) that adds very little to the plot and almost feels as if the printers accidentally dropped in pages from a different book.

Final verdict