Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

1990 Penguin PB, art by Mel Odom

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.”

1994 Penguin PB, art by Steve Crisp – with a figure looking very much like Michael Praed as Robin of Sherwood.

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.)

eBook edition

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.

Some more Tigana covers, including a 2 volume Portuguese edition.

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.


Andra by Louise Lawrence

1971 UK HB, art by Antony Maitland

Like the first Louise Lawrence book I read (1974’s The Wyndcliffe), I bought Andra (1971) because of the wonderful Antony Maitland cover to its UK first edition. But whereas The Wyndcliffe proved equal to both its cover and my expectations of it as a slice of vintage 70s British YA folk-fantasy, the best thing about Andra remains its cover, and it was mainly interesting to read because it was Lawrence’s first published novel (she wrote four — “very bad”, in her own words — beforehand, apparently).

It’s set 2000 years from now. Our world’s surface is no longer habitable, thanks to a bomb that “swung Earth from her orbit” — the year is now four times as long as ours — “just to end one stupid war and left us with a lump of useless rock”, as the titular heroine puts it. The action takes place in Sub-city One, one of three subterranean redoubts lit and heated entirely by artificial means. (There are a further five cities belonging to the rival nation-state of Uralia, which, ruled as it is by one Gravinski, is clearly a Cold War Russia analog.)

It’s a dull, mechanistic future. Children are separated from their parents at birth and raised by E.D.C.O. (whose initials aren’t explained, as far as I recall, but thinking of it as Education Corporation works), which separates the low IQs from the high, and assigns everyone, on adulthood, with a job and a spouse. People only ever wear the colour assigned to their job, all hair is cut short and, for some reason, everyone is blond-haired and blue-eyed.

1991 PB

Andra, a.k.a. Citizen C/22/33/5, whose age is given as 15 (though this must be our years, not theirs, otherwise she’d be a rebellious teen of 60), is a misfit from the start, classed as low IQ for her resistance to E.D.C.O.’s production-line style of upbringing. Playing hooky one day, she’s caught in an accident that destroys the part of her brain processing eyesight. Normally, she’d be terminated (“The city would not support any person who was not physically faultless”), but one Dr Lascaux takes the opportunity to try an experimental brain graft. The only available brain that will fit is one that belonged to a young man from 1987. The operation proves a success. Andra can see.

But she does so with the added memories of someone from the 20th century, who knows what such things as the sun, trees, fields and animals are. And she feels the hunger to see these things again. (To make matters worse, her hair also turns black and her eyes go brown, to the disgust of the more conservative dwellers of Sub-city One.) Having decided she’s nowhere near as stupid as E.D.C.O. says she is, Dr Lascaux recommends she be assigned to help the three-hundred-year-old Professor Kiroyo in the archives. Yet even this unusual, and perfectly suited, opportunity — Kiroyo is researching how people used to live before the surface became uninhabitable — grates with Andra’s intensely individualistic personality. She starts to display clearly 1960s-inspired signs of unacceptable free-spiritedness, such as growing her hair long and writing pop lyrics, putting her at the centre of a burgeoning youth movement which brings her into conflict with the the city’s autocratic director Shenlyn.

Andra is mostly a pretty straightforward free-spirit-versus-stultifying-society narrative. Everything about Sub-city One is an imaginative teen’s exaggerated idea of what being a dull, conforming adult is all about:

“…in this whole horrible subterranean place there is nothing, not one thing, I would class as beautiful. The language we speak is empty and void of any real meaning. Beauty no longer exists… This is not living… This is merely existing, being kept alive to keep our species alive and feed the demands of Shenlyn and the computers… With every breath I take I long to see the sun.”

It’s saved from being a straight-out dystopia when it turns out that Kiroyo is studying how people used to live so colonists can be sent to the newly-discovered, old-Earth-like Planet 801 in a fleet of rockets — so all the young people singing songs of rebellion and freedom are going to get their wish, freedom from the city and a chance to make their own way of life. But things, of course, don’t go quite so smoothly, thanks to those evil Uralians, and the novel ends on a rather abrupt down-turn.

Perhaps this reflects Lawrence’s own situation at the time. She was in an unhappy marriage (though soon to get out of it) and the dedication, “To my husband, for his tolerance during Andra’s creation”, can’t help, with that knowledge, sound distinctly cold.

There’s plenty of what would play out in Lawrence’s subsequent books, here in raw form. Andra’s brain graft — an alien and destabilising influence that opens her up to a new way of seeing things, bringing with it a host of sometimes dangerous difficulties — recalls the microscopic alien race that infects Jane Bates in The Power of Stars, the ghost that befriends Anna Hennessey in The Wyndcliffe, or the fascination Owen Jones feels for the nature-goddess-like Bronwen in The Earth Witch. There’s also the conflict between the worlds of potentially destructive technology and the raw power of nature, as laid out most clearly in her later book Star Lord.

1976 TV tie-in edition

Andra was adapted for Australian TV in 1976, apparently with such a low budget that shop window dummies were used as extras, and the scenery was mostly large coloured blocks. The novel was republished in 1991 in the US, with Publishers Weekly complaining of “the sometimes puzzling British slang” (I’d love to know what they were referring to) and that Lawrence “seems unsure of her message”, while Kirkus Reviews mentioned “Hackneyed writing, lack of science, and general implausibility”, but ultimately found it worked, “by establishing Andra as the one striving, scornful, yearning person in a world of drones”.

I have to admit I found the writing sometimes unpolished — occasionally a character would just start speaking in a scene when they weren’t previously present, and the point of view in the early chapters slips from one character to another mid-paragraph. I’d say it’s probably best read as part of an interest in Lawrence’s work, as the opening move in a soon-to-improve writing career, rather than as an introduction to it. Those of her later novels that I’ve read are all more interesting, and prove that she was up to taking on some strong themes. (Her post-nuclear Children of the Dust sounds rather Threads-like.)

I’ll still be keeping my hardback copy primarily for the Antony Maitland cover, though.