Given how many great fantasy authors I’ve read (Tolkien, Martin, Abercrombie, Rothfuss, Sanderson among them), it is surprising how late I stumbled upon this gem from 1990 by Guy Gavriel Kay.
Of all fantasy books I discovered so far, this is probably the most intellectual, in a good way. The plot is brilliant and contains many surprises, and the prose is beautiful. There are no simple notions of good and evil, but a number of complex people driven into tragic conflict by past events or inclination. I cared about some of the characters so much that I could hardly bring myself to read on for fear of their fate.
If I were pressed to state any shortcomings of the book, the only one I’d mention is this: like Tolkien’s books, and unlike some other modern ones by Martin and Abercrombie, Tigana does not play with incompetence, ugliness, and dirt: there is no fun to be had with incompetent, foolish military leaders; there is no ugly character, and all women are beautiful; there are some physical injuries, but there is never infection.
In truth, these “shortcomings” don’t harm the book at all, it is fantastic. I just wanted to point out what the book does and what it does not.
In summary, I think that Tigana represents a pinnacle in fantasy writing. It probably comes close to the limit of what can be achieved in the genre, except in the aforementioned “ugliness, incompetence, and dirt” dimension.