Thursday, July 22, 2010

Things that I Read

This Week: Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay

Grade: B+

It is very rare that a book actually makes me cry. I cried when Sirius Black died (I'm such a 10 year old girl inside), I cried when I read The Diary of Anne Frank (ok, I WAS actually 10-11 at the time), and I cried while reading Tigana, the first book that really moved me in a very long time. The premise of the story is relatively simple. 19 years ago the Peninsula of the Palm, which is loose confederation of provinces, was invaded by two rival sorcerers from abroad: to the west, Brandin, King of Ygrath and to the east, Alberico, a warlord from the empire of Barbadior. The people of the Palm, fought valiantly, but ultimately failed. There were some victories, however. For example, in an act of defiance and sheer willpower, the Prince of Tigana, one of the provinces, managed to defeat and kill Stevan, the son of Brandin. Unfortunately, this was to be the state's downfall. Distraught and consumed with rage, Brandin summoned all of his magic to erase Tigana from the face of the earth. Not only did he have all the great buildings leveled after he was victorious, but he erased the name "Tigana" from the memories of all those who were not born there. The remaining refugees from the province, Lower Corte as it was now called, had to suffer not only the humiliation of defeat, but the fact that all their nations achievements had been completely excised from history. The story follows a handful of those refugees, children of the forgotten land, as they strive to reconnect with their countrymen and work toward downfall of both Tyrants.

The book is as much an epic fantasy as it is a parable about memory and the horrors of war. In his afterward, the author mentions on of his influences was a piece he read about Czechoslovakia where an individual who had been accused of being a traitor was completely removed (replaced by a potted plant) from a photograph of a Communist Party gathering in later publications. It doesn't take magical powers for people to be "disappeared" all record of their existence removed. Think about how many Jews converted in the wake of the Inquisition, and how many children grew up never knowing their true heritage, or Native Americans who never knew their language or culture. This is not just the stuff of fantasy and science fiction, certainly. What I really loved about the book was that the magical elements were kept to a minimum and only used when absolutely necessary. For the most part, the story was about reconnecting with self and country. I particularly liked the character arc of Devin, the young virtuoso singer who knows nothing about his heritage until he discovers that other members of his troupe are from his home. The scene that really got me was when Baerd teaches Devin the secret behind his missing past, culminating in Catriana singing the beautiful song about Avelle, a great city in Tigana of old, that Devin had only known as a wordless childhood lullaby. But the story does not only follow Devin and his compatriots. It also shifts in perspective to Dianora, a beautiful concubine in Brandin's court, who is also from Tigana and originally came to court to kill the king, but over the intervening 19 years has come to care for him. I really loved her inner conflict and her struggle to distinguish from loyalty to her forgotten people and the new memories and life she has made in the years that followed Tigana's downfall.

The book asks some really powerful questions for what I thought initially was a light work of fantasy. Are we defined by our ancestry and our past, or can we truly stand on our own merits? Is cultural annihilation more painful than physical subjugation? I really found it interesting how Devin, not knowing he was from Tigana for all of his life, reacts to the new information. He jumps right in and pledges his loyalty to the old cause, breaks down in tears at the mention of the life that was stolen from him. Unlike the decedents of a converso who might later in life discover he is from Jewish origin, the pain here is very raw and deep. Devin, one who had no memory of the old country, also finds the revelation of the past history as additional insight into the mind of his father who, though he never spoke of Devin's dead mother or the life they left behind, sang to his son the lullaby of a lost land. Strangely, I found it to be an interesting parallel to Art Speigelman's "Maus" books in that the traumas of the past are unknowable to those who did not live through them, but can be just as painful to the children who might not understand the hidden pain of their parents. I really think that Alessan's toast to his fallen country says it all: "Tigana, may your memory be like a blade through my soul."

As a side note, Guy Gavriel Kay is himself Jewish and Canadian, which may well have influenced this work specifically (Canadians are particularly sensitive to their past oppression/ obliteration of Native American/ First Nation peoples). Truly, this is the most complex and interesting work of fantasy I've read in a very long time. I also think that because it lacks a heavy dependence on magic, except in a few key scenes, that it is definitely accessible to non genre readers who enjoy complex storytelling, adventure stories, and historical fiction. This is the first book by the author that I've read, though Amazon has been telling me I "May also like" him for years. I definitely will be reading more in the future. I find his writing style to be meaningful, evocative, and thrilling. My only complaint about the book was that the ending came a bit too abruptly, was a bit too magical and improbable, and brought up more questions than it really answered. Not that I necessarily needed an ultimate face to face confrontation between all the major players, but... no wait, you know what, I kind of did. The whole book was like a solid A for me except like the last 50 pages. I'm giving this one a B+ only because I think the lackluster ending irritated me. Also the whole Night Walkers and Baerd stuff was just like a random side plot that kind of did nothing either. It reminded me of the scene in the movie version of Two Towers where Aragorn falls off the cliff and they build this false tension whether or not he will return. So unnecessary. Anyway, great book overall, well worth reading, and certainly brings up issues that can be discussed in the future.

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