Summer Reading: Memory and Ethical Complexity in Tigana

The first book I took on for my summer reading project was Tigana, by Guy Gavrial Kay; and it was a doozy.  Weighing in at 688 pages, it immediately violated two key rules of summer reading- its chapters were long and its pace was slow.

The book is set in a fantasy world that has some geographic and technological similarities to Renaissance Italy, but the similarities end there.  The plot follows a group of people whose country was destroyed 15 years before.  In fact, not only was the country destroyed, but its memory was erased from the land entirely except in the hearts and minds of its citizens.  These people set out to encourage an uprising to destroy the two foreign dictators vying for control of their peninsula.

All of this is complex enough, but Kay furthers the problem by insisting on his own terminology and descriptions for many fairly normal items.  He also spends considerable time telling side stories that don’t really advance the central story, which may be helpful for fleshing out the story but hurts the reader’s ability to excitedly move from one plot point to the next.

So as far as summer enjoyment, this book gets maybe three stars out of five.  It’s a solid book, but is just too complex to enjoyably skim while tanning at the beach (not that I’ve tested this particular approach, of course).

However, what the book does do well is to meditate on ideas.  In particular, it focuses on the challenges of memory and things remembered.  The central tension of the book is not merely revenge for destruction of a homeland, or even reestablishment of what was- instead it is that they were erased from the pages of history entirely.  Coming to grips with defeat in battle is shown to be chump change in comparison to being forgotten.

The central characters, then, all play different roles in struggling with this problem.  One character desires revenge, one desires reestablishment of a kingdom.  Another is internally conflicted because she is in love with the man she wants revenge against.  A third joins the cause because it coincides with his own interests.

In this, Tigana is unique.  Kay is trying to struggle with an idea more than crank out a page-turner, asking you to meditate on conflicting emotional impulses more than set up an exciting adventure.

It’s for that reason that I highly recommend this book.  Too often, Christians attempt to caricature various people, classes, or ideas.  Revenge is always wrong, we say, and doing what is best for others is right.  But what if those things conflict?  Love your enemy, we say, but what if love for enemy hurts love for family?

It’s these kinds of challenges in story form that can cause us to be more careful, nuanced, and aware in our ethical behavior.  We need that, because real life is too full of tough questions to allow clichés and simplistic caricatures to drive our thinking.

I don’t recommend Tigana as a “summer read.”  However, I do recommend it as a book worth reading in a serious way.  If we as Christians allow ourselves to skim this type of book, thinking that its plot is too far removed from real life, then we are ignoring the reality of an ethically complex world.

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  • I’ll go ahead and second this. I’ve enjoyed Kay’s books for a long time, and I’d say that Tigana is my favorite.

    As you said, it lags a little in the middle, as the cast of characters — and their various side stories — grows. But the opening is strong and the way in which Kay eventually wraps up all of the loose ends is very satisfying. I’ll still pick the book off the shelf just so I can revisit the last few chapters.

    And FWIW, I enjoy the alternate terminology that Kay employs. It might take a little getting used to, but for me, it solidifies and deepens the world that Kay is creating.

  • I have two problems with made-up terminology:

    1) Presumably the characters are not native English-speakers and yet the bulk of the book is translated into our language from whatever faerytale language they are meant to speak, so why not their jargon too. Do I really need to investigate for six chapters before I get solid evidence that kaelfis is just a funny word for military police or that a welgir is a tribal lord?

    It’s even worse with names. You know how when you read the Bible in English, the translators see fit to call the messiah Jesus even though his name was really, what, Yehoshua? And the Greeks called him Iesu? Or how the Bible in Spanish calls John, Juan? Why do sci-fi/fantasy authors think we need everything in English save for names like F’lar, which could easily be rendered Fehlar. Or Fullahr. Flar. Or whatever. Really, I can only see using an apostrophe in a name if the apostrophe represents so real phonetic device that has no unique expression in our language, like a click or something.

    2) Unless the introduction of these fakey terms is done incredibly well, they serve nothing so much as to tear the reader out of the book until such time as he grows comfortable enough with the term to ignore it. George R.R. Martin failed at this early in A Game of Thrones. (Of course, once I became accustomed to his jargon, the book became a rollicking good time despite the earlier misstep.) Since sci-fi/fantasy authors usually tend to not be the most skilled authors (otherwise, they’d be writing real books, right? ^_^), the bulk of them should just abandon the habit and write, instead, to be read.

    All that said, Kay’s book sound worthwhile regardless.

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • I think you both make good arguments about made-up terminology.

    In the case of Game of Thrones, he’s really going for an audience that will stick with his world for 7 very long books. So I have found that over the course of several books I don’t mind it so much.

    However, generally I agree that it is frustrating, especially in a stand-alone book that leaps right into the story.

    One fascinating example of this is the Jeffrey Overstreet books, “Aurelia’s Colors” and “Cyndere’s Midnight.” The first books had so many of these unusual terms and phrasings that I struggled to get through the book at all.

    In the second book, not only are you more comfortable with some of the key terms, but he actually backs off of a lot of the offending language. Suddenly they are running past trees instead of pricklecone trees, eating fish instead of greenscale fish, etc. (those aren’t actual examples, there just seem to be a lot of things like that). I found the second book to be far better as a result.

    Kay is definitely over the top in this area. However, the gal who recommended it to me finds enjoyment in that lush sort of language, so who knows.

    A great anti-example is Kurt Vonnegut. Though his plots can be (intentionally) nonsensical at times, his language is so sparse it’s brilliant. He communicates impressive complexity in language I could read and understand in third grade.

  • I had the same trouble with Auralia’s Colors. It was a fair book, but the writing was a bit too dense with this sort of thing. So much so that I haven’t picked up Cyndere’s Midnight. I may return once the cycle’s complete and my library has more than just the first book—but I probably wouldn’t pay money for the series (any more than I would for Wheel of Time, the mistake of purchasing the first couple not withstanding). It is good to know however that Overstreet improves in the sequel.

    And yeah, Vonnegut does do an excellent job keeping things accessible. In Cat’s Cradle, he introduces sci-fi terminology (with Ice Nine*) and new religion with Bokononism, but the way he introduces them makes it all very easy to swallow. If I recall, Siren’s of Titan behaves similarly.

    As far as Martin, you’re right. Once one comes to terms with his terms, everything flows along smoothly. After about the third or fourth chapter, I was pretty okay. (Though I was a bit perturbed that it takes him ’til the end of the book before he reveals that “bed of blood” is his common idiom for a woman’s childbirthing experience—it would have been great had he mentioned that earlier, like in all the references to Lyanna Stark death.)

    Really, my only frustration with the series (I got halfway through the second book and put it down for a while) is that because it follows multiple characters as perspective narration, it ends up spending whole chapters narrating events from the perspective of a character that I just don’t care about. I think I ran out of steam by the time I hit the third Theon Greyjoy chapter. I just couldn’t be bothered to care about how he saw things. The Arya, Jon, and Tyrion chapters were all engaging (especially Arya and Tyrion). Bran was okay and Danaerys was tolerable. But Theon? And that pirate guys seems interesting but he’s stuck with that intolerable Stannis crew.

    *note: incidentally also one of Joe Satriani’s best songs)

    The Danes last blog post..20090417.teaParty

  • I hear you on the Game of Thrones. I think Martin uses that approach to support/highlight the moral ambiguity and unpredictability of the book. For instance, he uses perspectives in a way that makes you think for a while that a key character lived, when in fact he did not.

    But that approach definitely has its ups and downs. Wait until you read book 4… that could be quite discussion-worthy along these lines.

    Ben Bartletts last blog post..People and Sadness