Review: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Tigana is about memory. Guy Gavriel Kay says so himself in his author’s note in the book. It’s about personal memory, institutional memory, cultural memory.

It’s about how memories can change, how they shape us, how they define us. It’s about how memories could mean something at one point in our lives, and then over the course of time, come to represent something else completely. The character of Dianora represents this last facet most eloquently.

Dianora, really, is the heart of Tigana, and we don’t even meet her until well into the book.

In short, Tigana is a story set in a land, the Peninsula of the Palm, that has been (mostly) conquered by two foreign sorcerers, splitting the peninsula into two competing factions, and a native son of the Palm wants to rise up and liberate his people.

I’m keeping the description intentionally vague, because to give away too much of the story is to undercut its effect.

The story begins slowly, and the history of the world comes at you hard and fast. It’s difficult to keep up with the names at first – I had trouble remembering which was the name of a person vs. the name of a place, but that all sorted itself out eventually. Stick with it, though. Because it’s worth it.

Because, holy shit, Guy Gavriel Kay can write.

Tigana is beautiful and heartbreaking and romantic and devastating, and no other character does more to exemplify all these qualities than Dianora, a lover of one of the foreign conquerors. By the time you meet her, the story should be well-established and entrenched in your head, and the weight of her character’s decisions, actions, and yes, memories will be what elevates this book from pretty good to sublime.

The wonderful thing about this book is that it made me consider my own memories, my own experiences, and made me think about how these may have changed over time. As a younger man, there have been moments, I am sure, where I thought to myself, “I am going to remember this, because it is perfect.” And, of course, I’ve forgotten these things, whatever they were, but I’ve remembered things I never expected to. Snippets of conversations. The faces of the people I’ve met and loved and fought with. The things I’ve said. The things I’ve not said.

And all of these cumulative memories aren’t static, aren’t like some old photographs that never change or fade with time. They’re still living and breathing, still moving with me, still shifting and changing. The thing I used to remember about a certain day are gone, to be replaced by something else from that same day. For example, when I flew abroad for the first time, it was my first flight by myself. I used to remember and dwell on the faces of my parents as I left them – my mother’s tears, my dad’s proud and melancholic expression. But now I mostly remember that first European sunrise I witnessed after a long, sleepless night when my flight neared its destination, that sense of hope and excitement and adventure that coursed through me.

Tigana’s take on memory, with certain characters, tends to be more institutional, more cultural – which is good! We as a society have a shared cultural memory, and those are all interesting themes that get explored in the book.

But when it comes to Dianora in particular, that’s when the story is at its most personal, its most intimate. Tigana stayed with me after I read it, and it’s largely because of Dianora, her memories, her actions, how her past informed her present and determined her future. I actually finished the book over a month ago, and I’m only now coming to terms with my thoughts and feelings on it.

Like I said – Guy Gavriel Kay can write.