A Memory of Light, the final installment of The Wheel of Time. The second was Tigana by Guy Gavriel Kay.
Tigana is an epic fantasy tale told in a single book. It is the story of a peninsula, whose provinces have been taken over by two Tyrants. In the midsts of the war, one province was utterly devastated, its people killed, its cities burned, and its name taken by magic. Only the few survivors remember and can speak and hear the name of their province. The balance of power is shifting, however, and a band of travelers in the guise of merchants, poets, and musicians must gather what forces they can to overthrow both Tyrants and break the curse of their land. Otherwise none will live who can remember the name Tigana.
This book was amazing. It's rare that you see such a well-developed epic tale in a single volume (ie, not part of a trilogy or larger series). The plot and setting are great, but it's the characters that really make the story shine. They are intricate and feel utterly real. The characters are confused and hurt at times and you feel exactly the same thing. Kay has written a story that will resonate with audiences everywhere thanks to characters that are fully relatable. He does, however, have a tendency to drift into descriptions of backstory and the culture of the land. These were fascinating, but I know some people prefer straight up action in their books.
The story revolves around a group of people from former Tigana and their sympathizers. They travel around the peninsula of the Palm as they put tension on the two Tyrants that have conquered the people. Half of the story follows Devin and the Prince of Tigana as they have adventures, meet people, and work to position themselves for the final confrontation. The other half of the story follows Dianora as she dabbles in court intrigue and struggles between love and hate.
There are a few interesting side stories, the most disconnected of which appears to be the events around Ember Night and the Carlozzini. However, in the end we can see all the connections and that series of events in Ember Night turns out to be an important piece of the overall story. Despite the length of the book (~600+ pages), there is almost no padded scenes: everything serves a purpose.
While there are plenty of important characters throughout the story, a few stand out. Devin and Dianora are viewpoint characters and are the main way we see the world. Devin immediately gave the impression of being Kvothe from Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind. He is very talented with an uncanny memory and is very good at music (singing, in particular). Despite the initial impression, we quickly see he is not some mythic hero out of legend and is thus a bit more relatable than Kvothe.
Dianora is likewise a very complex character. Actually, all the characters are satisfyingly complex. Dianora is effectively a concubine of the Tyrant Brandin and struggles with her hatred of what he did (she is from Tigana, which Brandin destroyed) and falling in love with him.
The Tyrants themselves are also fascinating characters. Alberico of Barbadior gives off an initial impression of being more relaxed with his rule, particularly since he is allowing festivals and full funeral rites in his territories. However, this is quickly turned as we see how cruel and greedy he really is. Brandin of Ygrath, on the other hand, first comes off as utterly evil by having destroyed Tigana. However, when we first see him in person we realize he is quite charming and very nice. He, the destroyer of Tigana, is the one we are supposed to hate, but even the characters in the story have trouble with this. We are cheering him on in the end despite all his backstory. Kay has written a fascinating cast of characters that come to life in the pages of this book.
Setting / World Building
This is a fantasy novel set in the peninsula of the Palm with its nine provinces. While fantastical, the majority of the story relies very little on the typical fantasy tropes. Sure, there is magic as the two Tyrants are powerful sorcerers and have hunted down other wizards. There are also fantastical creatures like the riselka and plenty of mentions of the three gods- the Triad. However, in the end this is a medieval-type world with a bit of an Italian flavor to it given all the place and character names. While I am usually a big fan of cleverly created worlds, I feel like this book's characters are strong enough to carry the story regardless of the setting. The magic and intricacies of the setting serve more as a backdrop and help color the interactions of the characters.
I highly recommend this book. Kay is an amazing author and has crafted an epic masterpiece in Tigana. Despite being one of the first few books I've read in 2013, I'm confident that it will be among the top 5 books I read all year. I will certainly have to pick up his latest work, River of Stars, some time soon.