A review of Guy Gavriel Kay’s 30-year-old classic of magic and revenge

To all the people who are saying this is one of the best books they’ve ever read, I say…what? Really? This is a book with a near-mythic reputation, but it is nearly 30 years old and it is showing its age, not in a good way.

Tigana is a book about the limitations of revenge: two rival sorcerers conquer a small nation, dividing its provinces up between them. One of the provinces, named Tigana, suffers a particularly gruesome fate: the sorcerer, Brandin, casts a spell that literally erases the province’s name from history. Alessan, Tigana’s disinherited prince, spends the entire novel attempting to rectify this gross error. He is aided and abetted by a random assortment of malcontents and rebels.

Kay is a master of a very particular Old School of Fantasy Writing, full of romantic flourishes and heroic archetypes. It’s a School I love, but I’m aware of its limitations and the limitations of nostalgia more generally. If you do not like high fantasy with a enormous cast of characters, or you do not like a slow-burn plot with a lot of character development, you will not like this novel.

As others point out, the heroes of this story are deeply “flawed” but — and here’s the kicker — I get the feeling that deep down we’re supposed to root for them anyway. And I found it harder and harder to buy into that central premise as the story went on.

For starters, one of these so-called heroes spent literally the entire novel in blackface, pretending to be a dark-faced, black “Khardu”. In Kay’s world, the Khardu are people from the neighboring desert region of Khardun. I doubt it will surprise anyone when I point out that the choice of blackface made it painfully clear that everyone in this novel is supposed to read as white. Which begs the question: why didn’t Kay just feature a Khardu character in his (ENORMOUS) cast of characters? It was especially painful to see blackface in a novel that relies, for its emotional resonance, on a hero’s quest to end his people’s enforced erasure from history. After several pages of this nonsense, the heroes’ quest started to feel less like a noble venture and more like a terrible joke that only the audience understood.

Delving even further into the bowels of bad history, the heroes then dabble in actual enslavement. The conflict between the heroes and their victim — his name is Erlein, and they capture him via an arcane binding ritual — is incredibly intense. “You have bound me against my will!” Erlein cries. Sandre — the dude in blackface, for reference — pipes up: a king’s measure is in how he protects his “people,” and all ends justify this means. I felt flashes of physical pain at reading Sandre’s words, hearing in his twisted tribalism the same argument that so many tyrants have used to defend everything from American slavery to real-world colonialism. Erlein continues to wail, weep and struggle to escape for the next few hundred pages. The heroes beat Erlein, mock him, and imprison him. They eventually let him go, but neither they nor the novel seem to really understand the absolute, depraved horror of what they’ve just done to another human being. Instead, when Alessan frees Erlein, I get the impression we’re supposed to be dazzled by Alessan’s sudden moral acuity. Really?? I get that “ambiguity” is one of Kay’s trademarks, but there is nothing ambiguous about any of this. These dudes suck.

Meanwhile, one of the other characters, unfortunately the narrator, spends an enormous amount of time thinking about boobs. Through the eyes of this central character, Kay offers us detailed descriptions of the boobs, bodies and faces of ALL the female characters. Is this Tigana or Lake Woebegone, you might wonder, because all the women are good-looking. At one point, upon meeting some duchess or other, the narrator “couldn’t help but notice” her boobs, which are “high” and possibly “firm”, “ripe,” “round” or some other delightful adjective more appropriately suited for the avocados you select at the market. Speaking of squeezing things, despite the narrator’s youth and lack of anything resembling suaveness, these women cannot help jumping into bed with him. At one point, a female character taunts the narrator for looking down her shirt; a few pages later she’s enthusiastically having sex with him in a dark closet. Then there’s the sexy duchess spinning “webs of enticement” — a sado-masochistic succubus straight from a teenage boy’s most fervid fantasies — who shows up at the narrator’s chamber door one night and summons him to bed. Another woman falls in love with a man who’s effectively holding her hostage and destroyed her entire family. He’s 30 years older than her and a despot. I needed a LOT of reasons to find her infatuation compelling; I got none. The women in this novel don’t fall in love, they’re discovered there, conveniently. This is neither how life works nor is it how women work. Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the most significant decisions the female characters make all revolve around sexuality: seduction seems to be the only way that Kay can imagine women actually having an influence on the plot. He also conveniently disposes of these characters via marriage or death when he can’t find any other purpose for them.

In the afterword, Kay mentions some of the historical precedents that inspired his story: two Czech photos of 1960s-era Communist party leaders; an English survey team trekking through Ireland, changing the names of places; Maoist China declaring that history began with their own Long March; Provencal highway signs that, in offering place names in French and the “almost-lost Provencal tongue”, attempt to preserve a dwindling cultural legacy. The Welsh independence movement; Quebecoise separatists.

What becomes quite clear, though, is that Kay’s historical universe omits the experiences of any black or brown people, the same people who’ve borne the brunt of colonialism’s ugliness for much of the last couple of centuries. This might explain why blackface is an excusable event in his novel, and also why slavery becomes a brief subplot intended to highlight the heroes’ eventual morality. He just doesn’t get it, which is too bad, since the horrors of colonialism are supposed to be the novel’s emotional fulcrum.

And maybe they are, for other readers, but not for me. Having read a work like Toni Morrison’s “Beloved”, which is a compelling, nuanced, deeply devastating story about the realities of oppression and the ways in which it transforms human morality, Tigana feels like an also-ran, unable to deliver a truly compelling message about a very compelling topic.