I first read this book about a year ago, but wasn't sure I could do it justice in a review. Simply put, this is an amazing book.
Tigana is the name of a lost country, conquered in the prologue by a sorcerer determined to wipe out its culture and even its name and identity. The story mostly follows a group of freedom fighters, including the exiled prince, who are determined to win their land back; also crucial is a Tiganese woman who infiltrates the sorcerer's harem planning to kill him, but winds up falling in love. It's an epic fantasy in just one book (yes!), and so well-written that it qualifies as literary.
On the literary thing. The best books, aside from keeping the reader's interest throughout, have three-dimensional, well-developed characters and excellent prose, and this book has both. The characters are memorable, their motivations complex, and their morality not just black-and-white; the main "villain" is often more sympathetic than villainous, while the "heroes" occasionally resort to questionable tactics, or find their emotions conflicting with their goals. As for the prose... Kay's sentences are such a pleasure to read. This book is so well-crafted that I can pick it up and read random passages just for the pleasure of the way he strings words together.
Worldbuilding and thematics need to be discussed together here because they're intertwined; this is a book about stateless people, and how conquest affects individual psyches, and about memory and patriotism and lots of "big" issues. And the setting supports that; it's a completely believable world, with all of the action taking place on a peninsula mostly divided between two conquerors. The culture and landscape is based on that of medieval Italy (although set in the southern hemisphere, which is just cool)--and I'll take this opportunity to say that while some people criticize Kay for basing his cultures so heavily on real-world ones, I love this about his work, because it allows for a degree of depth, realism and atmosphere (both in the culture and the language) that I don't typically see in books where the author tries to completely invent a culture. And as far as the magic goes, it's well-woven into the story and the setting, but this is a low-magic world with the real focus on the characters, which I appreciate.
Kay has a tendency to rhapsodize about how awesome his characters are and about their strong emotions; while the characters in this book are very emotional people, however, this tendency is thankfully more toned down here than in some of his later works. There were only a couple things I didn't much like about this book. One is Devin, a naïve young man who gets caught up in action that's over his head; while I see the value of showing us the characters' adventures through his POV rather than that of the exile prince, Devin is the least interesting character in the book and I thought we spent rather too much time with him. Second, there's one female character we all know will wind up with one of the men, but Kay for some reason keeps who it will be a secret till near the end, when he could have been showing the development of the relationship instead. But there are some lovely romantic scenes in the book, so I'm not complaining too much.
Overall, a lovely book, and a memorable one. One of those books I can just fall into, it's so real and well-written and compelling. Highly recommended.