This is a stand-alone book, and thank goodness for a fantasy author who can tell a story in a single volume. The premise is wonderful - the Tigana of the title is a province which has been so comprehensively destroyed by its sorceror conqueror that even its name has been (magically) erased from the population's memories.
The book starts promisingly. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it has quite the finest opening chapter I have ever read, evocative, lyrical and very moving. And for a while the story burbles along very pleasantly, following the adventures of Devin, a talented singer with a travelling troupe, who unexpectedly finds himself drawn into a major political plot.
But as Devin begins to uncover the layers of conspiracy, the writing becomes bogged down. A disaster occurs, and the main group of characters escape to the woods, telling each other they have to leave the area at once. They then spend a great many pages sitting around talking. They remind each other that they have to leave - and then go back to the scene of the disaster, for many more pages of talking. And even as they set off, they are sidetracked again and - yes, more pages of talking. And Kay tells us at great length exactly what Devin is thinking and feeling during all of this, in mind-numbing detail. Some of this is useful exposition, but it soon begins to drag. I am not a big fan of all-action fantasy, but the plot has to move along a little quicker than this.
When we are introduced to Dianora (or Diorama, as I keep wanting to call her), things improve a little. There is still an inordinate amount of introspection, and a whole series of flashbacks, very out of sequence, and her dilemma seems a little contrived to me (having plotted for one single purpose for years, she finds herself unable to follow through? because of love? oh dear). But we do get to meet one of the two sorcerors keeping the population in subjection and he turns out to be a much more complex and interesting character than just a Big Bad, which is all to the good.
After this point, there is a better division of time between the two threads of the plot, and there are more action sequences and some intriguing magic interludes. There are also some less successful sections, which seem almost superfluous to the story. Kay is still far too wordy, however, and he has a bad habit of throwing in a lot of meaningful glances or cryptic remarks or 'suddenly, X understood' type lines, without actually explaining to the reader what is going on, which is totally infuriating.
But then the two main threads come together, and (almost magically) everything gels in a truly wonderful way. The final chapters are dramatic, beautifully written and have some wonderful twists, and, best of all, everything derives from what went before so that it all makes perfect sense and achieves a magnificent poetic justice.
Yes, the book is overwritten, the characters constantly over-analyse and over-emote, and the romantic interludes are sketchy, at best, and unconvincing. And although the characters are not entirely one-dimensional, neither do they have a totally believable realism. This is partly because many of them are introduced in disguise, so that we are unsure whose side they are on, and this creates a barrier to liking them wholeheartedly. Only Devin and Alais escape this fate, because we never see them as other than they are.
But despite all its flaws, the premise of the story, the world-building and the skillful way the author builds to the final confrontation all make this an unforgettable book. A good 4 stars. [First written April 2011]