My rating: 5 of 5 stars
There are some authors who, thank goodness, never let you down. For me, Guy Gavriel Kay is one of those. I first read his Fionavar Tapestry when I was about 11 or 12, and from then on I was hooked on his epic creations, his fabulous characterisations, his skill at story-telling, and his continued ability to surprise me. Surprise is rare thing in literature, I think — that cocktail-party quip about there only being seven plots in the world is probably fairly accurate… but not if you include Kay’s work.
Being a GGK fan is a bit like being in the Masons: you’re never sure if the person in front of you is also one, but once the secret handshake has been given, an entire world opens up between you. I just experienced this the other week when, having invited a few people over to my house for a pre-banquet post-conference drink, my yet-to-be-finished copy of Tigana was spotted. Shrieking followed, along with huge smiles and sighs.
Tigana is one hell of a good story. GGK has a habit — well, really, it’s his trademark in all but the Fionavar books — of taking an historical episode and morphing it into a fantasy world. The Lions of Al-Rassan is medieval Spain in the time of El Cid; A Song for Arbonne is southern France during the Cathar Crusade; Under Heaven is ancient China (the exact dynasty escapes me, but only because I’ve only read it once so far)… I kept trying to figure out what real country Tigana and the other provinces of the Palm represented, but this one wasn’t as easy to solve, which made it so much fun (it turns out it’s Italy during the time of Spanish and French invasions/influences. The peninsula should have given it away, but it’s summertime, so my analytical powers are running on a lower gear).
The power of memory is a very potent theme in historiography today, and Tigana plays with it, adds nuances, and then devastates you with the true power of names and identities. The people of Tigana have been denied the very existence of their homeland after being conquered by Brandin of Ygrath; Prince Valentin has been killed — as punishment for killing Brandin’s own son in the war — and now only Tigana-born people can speak the name of their province; anyone not from that part of the Palm has literally forgotten it, thanks to a powerful spell. Twenty years after the conquest, a small number of Tigana-born crusaders are desperate to restore their country to its former self, but how can you unite people behind a cause that they can’t remember? That pretty much leads you to the end of chapter one.
I won’t give away the ultimate secret at the heart of GGK’s plot, but I will say that it was the most jaw-dropping, heart-aching, satisfying moment I have had with a novel in far, far too long. It’s this kind of writing that makes me absolutely adore GGK — and it’s also so enchanting that he’s a Canadian author who doesn’t approach fiction as if it’s the 1950s and we’re all stuck in Manitoba/northern Ontario/Depression-era Toronto or Montreal with no escape in sight. His writing does NOT fall into Northrop Frye’s vision of Canadian culture’s garrison mentality; rather, his creations are pure escapism of the best kind: alluring, tantalising, through-provoking, and beautifully crafted.
I met GGK two years ago at a writer’s fest in Kingston. I brought along with me a much-loved and rather battered copy of The Darkest Road, which he was more than happy to sign as I gushed about how his svart alfars had danced in my head as I crossed the stage at Convocation Hall to get my BA from the University of Toronto. (If you don’t get the reference, you obviously need to rush out immediately and buy the entire Fionavar trilogy… NOW. Also, I am not the only person to do this when on campus.) The man was
perfectly affable totally engaging and kind fabulously wicked. I wish there were more writers out there like him.
Nothing can replace the Fionavar Tapestry in my pantheon of favourite novels, but Tigana came mighty close. Well done.
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Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.