I first read Tigana when it came out in 1990, and I remember immediately thinking this was something a bit different from the standard fantasy of the day. For a start, it wasn’t part of a trilogy/quartet/quintet but a (fat) standalone book. (It has even done the polite thing and remained so.) Its world was different in feel, too, with fewer explicitly fantastical elements and a more realistic-seeming politics. (A trend that would continue with the likes of George R R Martin and Robin Hobb.) I didn’t realise it on that first read but its setting, a collection of eight former principalities known collectively as the Peninsula of the Palm, was based on Renaissance Italy, which Kay had heavily researched before starting this novel. (Kay had written his version of the standard fantasy trilogy of those days in The Fionavar Tapestry. I started its first volume, The Summer Tree, a few months before this recent re-read of Tigana but couldn’t get gripped by it. In comparison, Tigana feels like a major step forward in its author’s craft.)
Eighteen years before Tigana (bar its prologue) opens, the Peninsula of the Palm was invaded by two major forces from the north, and is now split in two, with its west half ruled by Brandin of Ygrath, its east by Alberico of the Empire of Barbadior, in an uneasy truce. Both are tyrants and powerful sorcerers. The last province to fall in that invasion was Tigana, whose name is now forgotten — not because it was a particularly minor state, but because its conqueror, Brandin of Ygrath, lost his son in what he assumed would be an easy battle, and his consequent revenge, enhanced by sorcery, was typically excessive. After thoroughly suppressing and ravaging the land of Tigana,
“He… tore its name away. He stripped that name from the minds of every man and woman who had not been born in that province. It was his deepest curse, his ultimate revenge.”
Eighteen years later, those not born in Tigana — and there are increasingly few survivors — cannot hear, read or remember its name, instead calling it Lower Corte, as though it were just an annexe to another province. (And names are often important in fantasy — think of the magical power of a true name in Le Guin’s Earthsea, or the way the word “name” equates with destiny and identity at its deepest level in McKillip’s Riddlemaster.)
The novel follows Alessan, the last Prince of Tigana, currently travelling the Peninsula in the guise of an itinerant player of shepherd pipes, as he gathers a band around him to fight for the freedom of the Peninsula, and the ability to speak the name of his principality once more — a task made more difficult by knowing that the only way to truly free the Palm of tyranny is to get rid of both foreign sorcerers at the same time, otherwise the remaining one would simply expand his rulership, and no doubt become even more unreservedly cruel as a result. (And both are cruel. Alberico loves torture, and is quite happy to wipe out entire families in response to any attempt to oust his power. Brandin, who we see more closely, is perhaps tempting to believe less cruel, but his revenge on the Tiganans, both as a nation and individually, is deeply inhuman.)
Though Tigana has its heroic-fantasy aspects — and one of the best elements of the book is the way the narrative builds to some seriously intense dramatic highs — it doesn’t have the typically heroic type of central character. Alessan, Prince of Tigana might have been that character, but he’s not really a focus of the narrative. Instead it follows the likes of Devin d’Asoli, a wandering singer reawoken to the true name of his homeland, who finds himself one of Alessan’s band, and Dianora, whose plan to free Tigana has led to her winning her way into the seraglio of the tyrant Brandin. Both have minor heroic moments — major in their lives, but lesser in the main story — but mostly act as observers of the overall unfolding tale.
But I have a theory that, even in the extremes of gritty fantasy, as with Game of Thrones, fantasy writers will have to seriously fight their instincts to truly remove the fairy-tale element from fantasy. And if Tigana has an echo of the fairy-tale style of hero, it’s in the titular land itself. Like your traditional farm boy who’s really a king-in-hiding, the land of Tigana starts the novel sorcerously repressed and all-but forgotten, but through Alessan and his band fights its way back to recovering its true name, and eventually, it’s hinted, becoming a unifying force in the Peninsula of the Palm as a whole, the centre of a greater strength that will see off future incursions of foreign invaders.
I bought Kay’s next novel, A Song for Arbonne, when it came out. It, too, is a historically-based fantasy, though one, I seem to recall, that dialled back the fantasy elements even more, and I don’t remember if I finished it or not. I suspect I have a sweet spot — or, more likely, a zone — between the extremes of fairy-tale, full-on magical fantasy (The Belgariad, Zothique) and the darker, grittier, more cynical kind (Conan, perhaps, and of course Game of Thrones), and while Tigana fell within that zone, A Song for Arbonne didn’t.
Or, who knows, perhaps it all just comes down to how cynical I’m feeling at the time.