Tolkien Gestures Book 15: Tigana

Tolkien Gestures is one Sci-Fi nerds adventure into the strange mystical worlds of Fantasy Literature. Over the course of a year I’m reading 20 Fantasy Novels spaced over the life of the genre. This week, we away from the legions Fantasy Englands, to Fantasy Italy…

I was thinking, the other day, about one of the perennial issues I am still struggling with in the genre, which is books being “about” things. I’ve rhetorically asked myself a few times “Where is Fantasy’s Dune?”, as a way of expressing the doubt that the genre as really created something as vast and complex and deep as Herberts magnum opus, but actually I think theres a more basic question that I feel like asking many of these books – “but what’s it about?”

Because i’m not sure that i’ve come across many books that are about anything – Legend, actually, is about Heroism, deep down under the fantasy themed war story, but most of the others feel like the author came up with their cool fantasy world and then tried to write stories in them, rather than come up with a story and wrap the world around it, which perhaps is the wrong way to go about it, as the clean slate that Fantasy gives you is ideal for building worlds that let you explore concepts and themes without much of the baggage that historical, modern or near-future writing has to contend with.

Which brings me to Tigana. Tigana is clearly about stuff.

First up, the book itself. It’s a pleasure to read, to be honest, fluid and pacey, and has a large and diverse enough cast of characters that you don’t feel either bored of them or get confused that there’s too many you don’t see for several hundred pages. it’s a complete story in one volume, which is a huge plus point for it. It’s fantasy-ye-olde-Italy feel is a nice change from fantasy-ye-olde-england, too.

But, the real strength of Tigana is that it shows off something the whole genre can do well – which is wrap a whole world, a whole setting around a central theme that it feels needs exploring. In this case, Loss, Greif and Memory, and why its important to keep hold, and important to let go, and what that does to you and how. Its powerful, grown up stuff, in a story that plays heavily with your sympathies and pokes questions at your assumptions of what makes people “good” or “evil”.

Most of this comes through the books’ stand-out character, the “Evil Tyrant” Brandin, murderer, genocidist, conquerer, and one of the most human and sympathetic characters i’ve come across this year. its hard, even knowing all he’s done, to not feel for him, even at the end wrapped up in Grief and Self-Hate he can’t let go of even as he struggles back towards the Moral Event Horizon and something to live for other than his own cage of pain. In fairness, the other main characters are equally complex, but (for example) Alessan’s “doing questionable things in the name of the greater good and being vaguely emo about it, staring into the middle distance” schtick is more familiar, and therefore less striking, despite still being adroitly handled.

But even the main characters aside, you have a world built on a history it cannot forget – a series of states conquered because they couldn’t put their past behind them and unify, supporting character after supporting character touched by some loss, or fear of loss, and dominated by it. As a work, its thematically coherent, something i’ve not seen a lot of this year, but often take for granted elsewhere. Thats refreshing, even if nothing else was.

Of course it’s worth mentioning Tigana‘s oddities – it’s slightly odd coda, the meaning of which is really vague; the totally random S&M bondage bit in the middle, and the fact that I can’t shake the feeling that its ending lacked a little bit of elegance, although it’s hard to pin point why. Theres a nicely poetic ending to Brandin, for instance, killed pretty much because he decides to live, but it didn’t quite dovetail together as cleanly as i expected from the rest of the book.

But, niggles, really. Aside from them, definately one of the books of the year.

Next up: First in the epic epic story to best all epics (alledgidly), with George R R Martins’ A Game of Thrones.

Feedback, corrections and other comments welcome either here or by email to grampus(at)dissectingworlds(dot)com or on twitter @thegrampus.

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  1. Clover /

    This is an interesting topic because as a long term fantasy fan I tend to find some science fiction a bit dry and ideas-based rather than story-based or character-based. There are certainly plenty of big ideas in the major works of fantasy but the writers generally tend to leave it up to the reader to decide what message (if any) they want to take away from the book. Personnaly I prefer this approach as I dislike the feeling that an author is looking over my shoulder telling me what to think about stuff. I’d rather be caught up in a story in its own right and get what meaning is relevant to me out of it. I guess Tolkien set the template with his Allegory verses Applicability argument in the Foreword to Fellowship of the Ring. Interestingly Guy Gavriel Kay is a writer who tends to lean more towards allegory. His books are often fantasy takes on specific historical events (not sure if this is the case with Tigana or not).

    Anyway, enjoy Game of Thrones. It’s a cracker.

    • dwgrampus /

      SF at it’s worse really suffers from a tendancy to favour technobabble over people – i always think of Arthur C Clarke with his love two-dimensional people in stories full of fascinating, 3d technology. His most memorable character is a crazy AI, which tells you something. the older i get the more i prefer character over concepts, whether thats age or just changing tastes i’m not sure.

  2. Dion /

    Wow, this beast of a book has been sitting on my shelf for a decade unread (because of the poncy pastel cover – sue me, I’m shallow and have a zillion books still to read) but based on this write up I’m putting it straight on my ”I really will read it’ pile. Not at the top you understand, but there is now a chance it will avoid the next book purge. Nice one!

    • dwgrampus /

      it was pretty much forced on me by a freind panting “you WILL like this”. thankfully, i did.

      mind you, thats two postitive reviews in a row. i must be losing my touch.

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