(minor spoiler at the end)
In the peninsula of The Palm, there are a number of warring city-states – much like Italy in the mediaeval period – with a common language and religion. Sensing weakness, two enemies strike to conquer – Alberico, a minor lord from the empire of Barbadior, and Brandin, king of Ygrath, who sees the Palm as a colony for his beloved son Stevan. Both are sorcerers, and magic aids their campaigns. After much fighting, the city states of the Palm all fall to the conquerors – the eastern states to Alberico, the western to Brandin – in an uneasy balance of power. One state remains nominally under Alberico’s control but pays tribute to Brandin. Tigana, one of the western states, resisted the invader rather more successfully than the others, and was site of a bloody battle in which Stevan was killed – in an act of extreme sorcery, Brandin cursed Tigana powerfully after its fall, removing its name from the hearts of anyone who was not born there, changing the state’s name to Lower Corte, and oppressing it rather more strongly than anywhere else.
Twenty years later, a musician named Devin unwittingly witnesses the fake death of Sandre d’Astibar, and discovers that he was born in Tigana before its fall. He joins a group led by Alessan, son of the last Prince of Tigana, and his friend Baerd, travelling the Palm in the guise of a minstrel troupe, trying to gain trust and men for a rebellion against both conquerors. Alessan’s aim, ultimately, is to liberate Tigana from its curse and kill Brandin, but knows that the only way to do this is also to remove Alberico as well.
Also woven into this story is that of Dianora, Baerd’s older sister, whom he has not seen since he was fifteen, who made a vow to kill Brandin, and as a consequence of that, planned her eventual removal to the island off the coast of the Palm where Brandin had set up his own court. She was taken for the saishan (harem) and gradually gained Brandin’s trust – her vow to kill him, however, was thwarted by the fact that she fell in love with him.
This novel is tragedy on a noble scale, set in a world that feels fully-realised and described. It has a consistent theology, ways of dealing with magic, and folklore and traditions. The characters are multi-faceted: the rebels think of Brandin as a grief-stricken tyrant, but through Dianora’s story we see him as a real person and come to have much sympathy with him. Nor are Alessan and his party blameless – they are ruthless, quick to seize opportunity, and (almost) entirely single-minded. Alessan binds a hedge wizard to his service, for example, without considering whether the man wants to be bound or not, and Catriana is willing to murder and attempt suicide for their cause.
The details in the novel are superb, with many instances of tradition or folklore which flesh out the land of the Palm so well, as well as the mutual suspicion between the peoples of it. The brutality existing under the Tyrants’ rule is faithfully drawn, as well as the numbed apathy of ordinary people who only want to get on with their lives under harsh circumstances – as in any occupied country.
I was rather disappointed by the ending, where Kay fails to tie everything up neatly, but it’s certainly more realistic than your typical novelistic ending. Every time I re-read it I do wish that Dianora and Baerd could meet again, since their story is the one I find most affecting.