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Booknote: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Whenever I travel, I spend as much time choosing the book(s) I will take with me as I do planning the trip itself. In fact, "road trip" and "lots of reading time" are synonyms to me; this is because I can't stand just sitting. Just waiting. But if I have a book? Six hours of driving fly by, a long wait for a layover seems like minutes, and whatever lazy hours I happen to find myself with (on a beach, for example) are whiled away pleasantly.  

But it can't be just any book.

I want something that's long enough to last the trip but not so long that I'll have much left to read when I get home. I want strong characters and a good plot and lovely writing, but it can't be too literary, either. And it needs to have a certain feel, something that is hard to explain. A sort of resonance that gets along well with the trip in general. So, for example, when I went to Mexico this summer I read State of Wonder by Ann Patchett, which I loved and which managed to work, even though Mexico is nothing like the Amazonian jungle. (I also read Juliet by Anne Fortier, a retelling of Romeo and Juliet which had so much potential but was so, so awful! About fifty pages in, I started folding down the corners of every page that had a cliche or something else eye-roll worthy and I think nearly half the pages were folded down by the end.)

When I took the boys to Disneyland last month, after much careful thought, reading of reviews, and searching out opinions, I decided that the fantasy novel Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay was my story for the trip. I say "story" because I was driving, so instead of reading I listened to it. This meant that my first experience of driving to California the entire way (I have, of course, driven on our other trips with Kendell, but never the entire way) was interwoven with the regal and elegant voice of Simon Vance, telling me the story of The Palm, a medieval-Italy-esque country that has been overtaken by two rival wizards.

My only other experience with Guy Gavriel Kay's work was Ysabel, which I read about fifty pages of (on another trip to California!) before it was ruined by the infamous Rogue Wave of 2010. I was so traumatized by ruining a library book that I didn't check out the replacement copy. Ever. I just continued to keep the author near the top of my to-be-read list.  Tigana was a perfect traveling book for me. The Palm is a country of nine provinces, four ruled by Alberico of Barbadoir and four by Brandin of Ygrath. (The ninth province, Ferraut, retained a sort of freedom that will be important as events move toward the climax.) Twenty years ago, these two sorcerers took The Palm, battling both the people of the country and each other to gain control. Brandin, the more powerful sorcerer, casts a spell after the Prince of Tigana kills his son: anyone who was not from Tigana, or who was born after the battle at the river Disa, cannot hear or understand the province's name. He destroys all of the art, literature, and architecture of Tigana and then renames it Lower Corte.

he story is about a group of people from Tigana who are trying to overthrow Brandin because once he is killed, the name of Tigana will come back. Poets, wizards, a prince, musicians, and vagabonds weave in and out of the story. Honestly, there are a lot of characters, which is something I know some readers don't like. For me, they were each distinct enough that even listening to the story I could keep them straight. Another thing I liked about the novel is its pacing. The events of the story take place over a little bit less than a year, with flashbacks to each of the major character's pasts. Rather than showing everything that happens during this year, the plot focuses on the main events and works in neat summaries of the lesser events. 

I also enjoyed the book's female characters. This isn't fairy tales and princesses sort of fantasy; there is magic in the world but most of what happens feels historical. Neither Dianora nor Catriana, the two man women, have magical powers. Instead they are women trying to make a life in a world that is very bitter and hard. They each have things that happened in their childhood or adolescence that influence their choices as adults; they grapple with choices and try to do the right thing and find the best way to use their individual strengths. Dianora, however, is the female character who continues to haunt me. Her father was one of the artists of Tigana, and a few years after he was killed—once her brother leaves and her mother dies—she decides that it is up to her to bring Tigana back. She sets herself the task of killing Brandin and does this by (eventually) becoming one of his concubines. I had read in my research that there was a character who falls in love with her rapist (a plotline I abhor and the one thing that made me uncertain as to whether or not I should even bother with the book), but it is a little bit more complicated than that reviewer made it out to be. Dianora names it as the central question of her adult life: how does she resolve the fact that she both hates and loves this person? She doesn't want to love him. This conflict is why she lingers in the saishan (the women's quarters of the palace) for years without killing him. Partly she is waiting for the right situation to kill him; partly she doesn't know if she is able. 

This part of the novel reminded me of Faramir's central question (in Lord of the Rings), when he looks at a soldier from Sauron's side whom he has killed. Is the soldier evil because of the side he is fighting for? Or is he just an ordinary person caught in an evil war? Of course, the wizard Brandin is much more than an ordinary person; he is the man who engineered and brought to pass myriad deaths and evil circumstances. But from a certain perspective, he is also a person who is trying to bring good to his native country, Ygrath, in the form of wealth and agriculture that is sent there from The Palm. He is obviously an antagonist, but his motivations are layered and complex. Dianora is caught between those two versions of him.


I didn't quite finish listening to the book before I got home from my trip; I had about two hundred pages left. I was so absorbed in the story, though, and I knew my time for listening would be limited, so I just checked out the book and finished it. I'm glad I had both experiences with the story. Simon Vance's voice and reading style were perfect for Kay's writing style, but only listening I was sometimes a little bit lost. Once I had the book in my hands and I could look at the maps, the things I hadn't understood fell into place. Vance's voice sort of spoke over my own internal reader as I read, but his voice was so good that was perfectly ok.

But the best thing about Tigana is that while it’s fantasy, it reads like it’s real. The characters have real conflicts that they must resolve with their intelligence and strengths. They have to make hard choices and do hard things and make sacrifices. They sometimes ruin relationships or put other people in danger. The potential weakness in fantasy is, I think, its potential for conflicts to be resolved by someone waving a wand and saying "Oh, I know a spell for that!" This book doesn’t do that. Instead, it took me to a landscape that doesn’t exist but which I could imagine and then made me suffer along with its characters.

What do you look for in the books you read on your vacations?


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