What more can be said other than everyone should read it. At least once. You won't be disappointed. Kay is a great prose writer. It doesn't even matter if fantasy isn't your thing because this book does not read like fantasy. It reads like the sort of well-written historical fiction that weaves in myths to tell the tales of a lost time. A personal favorite combination, I must admit. Also, I'm coming off of a dramatic final battle/confrontation scene... so this is a hugely biased review.
There isn't much that can be said about this book without giving the story away, but I'll try to sum up the foundation on which the story is built.
The Palm, where the story takes place, is a peninsula that Kay modeled after Renaissance Italy. Music plays a big part in the narration, and at times, you can almost hear music in the prose. There's a somber tone and a Mediterranean feel to the atmosphere that's hard to describe, but you feel it when you read.
The main players are: Brandin of Ygrath is a sorcerer/king/tyrant from the West; Alberico of Barbedior a sorcerer/barbarian/tyrant from the East; Valentin a prince of Tigana, a small corner of the Palm. On the eve of the battle that would later wipe Tigana from existence, we learn that Brandin came with force and magic to take over the Palm. Prince Valentin, who had already foreseen his fate and knew he couldn't win, killed Brandin's son on the battlefield; he had no other choice. This led Brandin to unleash all of his wrath on Tigana, ultimately wiping it off the map and from the memory of everyone who wasn't born in the land. Only the people born in Tigana before the fall remember its name and history. Brandin renamed the land Lower Corte, as an insult to the people of Tigana because Corte was a former formidable enemy, and enslaved its people.
That is just the prologue. The rest of the story is set twenty years after Tigana's fall with the rise of a quiet rebellion. Alessan, only surviving son of Valentin, leads a small band of rebels across the Palm to do the impossible, overthrow both Brandin and Alberico at once and take back the land. It has to be both at once because, if one tyrant falls, the other would easily take his place and continue to his reign of terror.
Somewhere on the other side of the Palm, on a similar path, Dianora, the daughter Valentin's close friend and adviser who was also killed by Brandin, has plans for a quiet upheaval of her own that starts at the heart of Brandin's court, but she does it alone. I think it's because she's alone that she fails in executing her plans, and because she's alone, it's easy to fall for Brandin after having lived with him as a concubine for twelve years.
The plot is revealed gradually as you learn more about each character, his/her inner turmoil and redemption, and the history of the Palm. The tyrants get almost as much screen-time as the other main characters. There is a lot of grief, loss, and pain in this book. As a reader, a casual observer, you feel most, if not all, of it because the writing is just that good. It's poetic and lyrical, like Alessan's music. At times I could swear I can hear music playing in the background.
What Kay does extremely well is capture the loss of a homeland, history, culture, and name of a group of people. Only they alone have memory of this piece of land that no one else remembers. When they try and speak of it, people born outside of the land can't even hear the name because it's been magically erased from the collective memory. In essence this is a story of the side that lost the war and the consequences they suffer because they lost. This particular narrative transcends genres, I think, and we don't often see it told, or rather told well, in fantasy.
I'm certain there are a couple things I didn't like or had trouble imagining in the book. I just can't think of any right now.
She would be near the water by now. She would not be coming back this time. He had not expected her to return on the morning of the Dive; she had tried to hide it, but he had seen something in her when she woke that day. He hadn't understood why, but he had known that she was readying herself to die.
She had been ready, he was certain of it; something had changed for her by the water's edge that day. It would not change again.
— — — — —
I received this book as a gift and have had it sitting on the shelf collecting dust for about a decade, and now I can't think of a good reason why I kept putting it off for so long. Other life things always got in the way, I suppose. Other book things got "priority" status. I simply forgot I had the book. Anyway. I regret not having read it or any of Kay's other books all these years, is what I'm saying. I still can't believe I've suffered through scores of weak to mediocre fantasy series, but not once did it occur to me to start reading this book until recently. Not once. Such a huge fail. So don't do what I did.