Classics Review: Tigana
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Tigana is a fantasy story set in a fictionalised version of pre-unification Italy. On one hand it is an exciting adventure story following a deposed Prince trying to drive invading foreign powers out of his country but it also has a deeply philosophical undertone about the nature of patriotism and the loss of identity that comes with the loss of power.
All great fantasy books use magic as a simplification of events in the real world, in this case the two invading powers that have divided up the “Palm” region are represented by wizards. One of them is a lesser warlord who rules with brutality and is held in contempt by the locals, who were more accustomed to nuanced politics. The other is a king, bound and trapped in this foreign country that he hates by the same magic that makes his rule there so complete. To make matters more complex, destroying either one of the invaders would simply shift the balance of power and allow the other to subjugate the Palm completely, requiring a complex conspiracy to simultaneously dispose of both.
Where normally an invasion and subjugation gradually wears away at a culture, slowly erasing its history and all sense of national pride, magic allows one of the invaders to accelerate the process. One of the provinces of the Peninsula of the Palm upset the conquering king in a very serious way. In response; their identity, from their culture and history to the very name of their city-state was magically erased and can no longer be spoken. To outsiders the city-state of Tigana never existed and to its people it was now a forced secret, doomed to fade from even their memory within a generation when those who lived there before the invasion have died out.
Every part of the story of Tigana revolves around how that loss of pride and identity wears on the people of the Palm. From the broken way that they now love each other, the way that their faith and social interactions are cowed in fear of the invaders retribution to a more esoteric conflict which shows that the people of the Palm are losing their will to fight even against the forces of nature in the wake of their defeat.
This sense of national identity is also tied closely to the few magicians of the palm that we come across, to truly claim their power they must ritually sever two of their fingers to make their hand symbolically match the geography of the Palm, they must permanently link themselves to it before they become all that they are meant to be.
Even more so than patriotism; Tigana is about memory. About how a people can remember who they are in the world and about how those memories can be passed down through story and song. About how invaders try to strip native people of their memories to make them less able to resist or try to twist those memories and narratives to suit their own causes.
Tigana is an often quiet book, telling it story steadily through minor characters and steady pacing. But it is all the more poignant because of it. Nationalism is not a popular subject in the modern world and while Kay never delves into the most negative possibilities of it, beyond Tigana’s citizens willingness to do anything for their country’s cause, it is difficult to frame the story of an invaded people trying to reclaim their identity before it is eroded away as anything but heroic.