Here is a story about me and Guy Gavriel Kay. When I first went to college, I met this girl on my hall who liked to read fantasy novels and I was like, Awesome! This is my First College Friend! She lent me The Summer Tree because she said Guy Gavriel Kay was amazing. I tried to read it and ferociously hated it, and then I tried twice more and kept on loathing it every time, so I leaned it up against her door and scampered away, and after that I slightly hid from her whenever I saw her because I didn’t want to tell her that I hated her favorite book. And then we didn’t become friends. Oh Past Jenny. What a dope you were.
Not a dope because I didn’t like The Summer Tree, I hasten to add. I am pretty sure The Summer Tree was genuinely boring. It was Guy Gavriel Kay’s first novel, and let’s be honest, even Tigana is not a riproaring barnburner of a book, in terms of plots moving along at a speedy pace. I was a dope because I thought I couldn’t be friends with someone whose favorite book I didn’t like. I am embarrassed of this story but I’m leaving it up because I think it’s good to confess past failings.
Anyway, I have never from that day to last December read a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Because of this event. I was too embarrassed by my past self to try Guy Gavriel Kay. Plus I thought he was boring and terrible, in spite of rave testimonials by many people whose taste I respect, including most notably Memory, who is always saying how great Guy Gavriel Kay is. Tigana is a book about memory and language, essentially. More specifically, it’s about a country, Tigana, whose name has been wiped from the memories of an entire world by a vengeful sorcerer. The only ones who can speak the name Tigana are the people who were born there, and as the years go on, their number is growing ever-smaller. All the sorcerer has to do is keep the spell going until all the Tigana-born people are dead, and he will have succeeded in destroying the country entirely. It is the plan of the protagonists to stop this from happening.
The Good: I love this premise. Guy Gavriel Kay was inspired by Brian Friel’s excellent play Translations, which made him think about the links between language and memory and the existence of what is being articulated and remembered. It’s brilliant that what’s at stake here is the survival of a memory. Many of the Tigana-born people are still alive, and Tigana itself still exists — albeit in grinding poverty and under a different name — but the protagonists are working to restore the name of Tigana as a nation. That’s something I don’t think I’ve seen in fiction before.
I also loved it that Kay gives his villains teeth. There are two main tyrants ruling all the countries in the land, and they are very different tyrants, but both of them are crazy tyrannical. In the initial meeting to discuss the plan for bringing them down, SPOILERS half the plotters die. Seriously. There are like seven of them there, and four of them die. And you are told that the tyrant wizard, Alberico, is going to hunt down every living member of their families and torture them to death. It’s intense, and it makes it impossible to forget that at any moment and for the smallest reason, any of our heroes could be caught and killed, and the whole plan could be destroyed.
There is this amazing part of the book where the main plotter, Alessan, basically enslaves a wizard they happen upon. Nobody tries to make the case that it’s okay for him to do this, and he himself hates it (and the wizard, obviously, hates it). But Alessan does it anyway, because it improves his odds of bringing back his beloved country. I loved the questions this raises about tyranny and control and freedom — Alessan is always telling the wizard, You weren’t free before because this land lives in tyranny, and it’s hard to say how much of this is rationalization for the terrible wrong he’s done to this man.
The conclusion was perfect. Sometimes terminal battle scenes don’t work for me, but this one worked like damn. SPOILERS both tyrants die, and in both cases they die in exactly the right way. It’s not overdone. It’s not deus ex machina-ish. It’s just right. And when Brandin dies, the sorcerer who removed Tigana from everyone’s memory, it even tugged at my heartstrings a little bit. Even though he was responsible for this very evil thing!
The Bad: The sex scenes. Just are not good. I wished they would never occur.
As much as I loved the ideas in this book, which was a lot, I didn’t love it as a whole. I never hit that place where the book became a necessary thing to my life. For the first two-thirds, I kept having to remind myself to go back and finish reading it so I could finish it and leave it with Mumsy. Intellectually I can see that this is a good book, but it hardly ever got me in the heart. Sadly. Guy Gavriel Kay’s writing doesn’t wow me (it doesn’t displease me; it just doesn’t actively bring me joy), so the length of the book sometimes felt unwarranted.
I’m not writing Guy Gavriel Kay off, mind you! Tigana was a good book, and if you do enjoy Kay’s writing a lot, it could be a really amazing read. I think what I’ll do is try one more Guy Gavriel Kay book before giving him up as Not For Me. Any recommendations? I’m not reading The Summer Tree. But anything else.