There’s very little I hate more than having to pick my favorite of something. One thing I definitely hate more than that is being asked to pick the best of something. There are so many variables, so many different aspects that need to be considered before you could possibly even begin to come to a conclusion.
So to be asked to essentially nominate the greatest fantasy novel of all time seems pretty much insurmountable. It isn’t enough to just have excellent worldbuilding, or characters, or story lines, or magic systems; we have to combine all of these elements into one whole that also manages to say something deep and enduring about the human experience. Oh, is that all?
After much thought and soul-searching (I take these things seriously after all), I’ve decided to place my nomination for the Great Fantasy Novel upon Guy Gavriel Kay’s 1992 novel Tigana.
Man, where to start. Tigana tells the story of a people subjugated, oppressed through magical means to be unable to even speak the name of their people where others can hear it. It is a story of vengeance years in the making, of justice for wrongs righted. It is a story of love, of loss, of betrayal.
But Tigana goes deeper than that. The setting of this novel is an alternate version of early Renaissance Italy. I’m a historian by education, so this is a period with which I’m familiar. Italy at that time was a seething mess of warring city-states, with no real national identity to speak of. In the name of spiting the other city-states, each one repeatedly opened the gates to invading armies from Europe, each sure that they’d be the ones left in charge after the dust settled. The cycle of betrayal and revenge prevented any serious form of unification until the Napoleonic era and the Resurgence in the early 1800s.
This story of seeking to preserve a national identity is hardly one that is unique to that era of Italy. We see the same thing with the burgeoning state of America in the 1700s, with the experience of Jews and Israel after the Second World War, and with every Aboriginal people everywhere colonists settled. This is an enduring problem that humanity has always faced, and quite possibly will always face.
Tigana also does a lot to challenge our assumptions about the nature of invasion. We’re presented with an obvious hero and an obvious villain. But as the story goes on, our hero Alessan becomes so obsessed, goes so far in the name of revenge that he starts to become a little unsympathetic. Likewise the villain, Brandin, is actually a very enlightened, reasonable person. His act of revenge for the death of his son, while terrible, horrific even, starts to fade a little into the background of his love for his saishan (a sort of harem/concubine role) Dianora, and the fact that he really does seem to care about the quality of life his subjects have.
It says a lot about the nature of revenge, and about the need, sometimes, to simply allow the past to be the past. To not necessarily forget or forgive, but to accept and move forward. It also says a lot about the way people’s causes start to color every aspect of their lives, how hard it can be to put that axe down, even when you lose everything else because of it.
Aside from the content, whose themes I feel will endure for the ages, the prose itself is breathtaking. I know I’m a bit of a GGK fanboy, and I wear the label with pride, but every single one of his works is absolutely beautiful. He has a way with description and worldbuilding that makes it seem like he has spent months researching. And he has. Most of his novels include descriptions of which experts he consulted and which works he read beforehand. You have no doubt, at any point, that any historical references he has made are absolutely correct to the best of his abilities to determine. As a historian this appeals to me because we aren’t just reading great fiction, we’re getting insights into a period of history.
I could go on for pages, pulling out scenes, sections, or individual lines of the prose that struck me in this book. Moments that I don’t dare actually describe in this article because, even twenty-one years later, I don’t want to spoil them for anybody who has yet to read it. I’ve written and deleted paragraphs many times over the course of this single piece of writing, having wandered too far afield, having gone too deep into the plot, the story, in an effort to try and communicate exactly why I feel this book deserves to be considered the Great Fantasy Novel.
I suppose that is therefore the entire argument: this book is so well-written, so deep, so incredible that I refuse to spoil any element of it in the hopes of using that to entice you to read it. I want you to be able to enjoy each part for the first time just as I did. To laugh and gasp and maybe even cry as this incredible world and story unfolds.
Since January 2011 when I began tracking it, I’ve read 143,628 pages of fiction, almost exclusively science fiction and fantasy. That’s 267 novels. I read my first fantasy novel when I was 8 years old. I couldn’t begin to estimate how many books I’ve read in my life, but it is definitely numbering in the thousands, so I don’t make a claim lightly or in ignorance. Tigana has never once failed to appear in the top 10 books I’ve ever read, at any stage in my life, no matter which style of fiction I’m enjoying best at the time. This is, without a doubt, one of the greatest fantasy novels ever written, and that is why it is my nomination to this event.
This article is part of our search for “The Great Fantasy Novel.” For more information on this project or to nominate your own favorite fantasy novel, please take a look at the introduction article. Do you agree or disagree with this nomination? Let us know in the comments below!