Yesterday I suggested that Cryptonomicon is History-With-A-Twist. It has recognizable historical events in it — the Hindenburg disaster, WW2, Pearl Harbour and all that. It includes historical figures as characters, Alan Turing and Douglas McArthur prominent among them. It has places you can visit — Manila, London, Tokyo, Seattle. But it also has funny glitches that mark it as Not-Quite-History. There are places and people and happenings that are fictional, things that couldn’t quite be so.
While Cryptonomicon is obviously set in a (mostly) familiar history, Tigana is not quite as clearly based in history. It is more a fantasy novel, placed somewhere utterly foreign, somewhere that is clearly not this planet. Yet something resonates somehow. The story is set on a peninsula called the Palm, which reminds the reader (well me anyhow) in a vague way of an Earthly peninsula shaped like a boot. Once this connection is made, the names in the book start to sound Italian; the pronunciation guide at the beginning of the book uses Italian words as examples. A re-reading of the Acknowledgements makes the connection crystal clear — the author wrote part of the book in Tuscany. Tigana is generally classified as Fantasy, but Guy Gavriel Kay, the author, writes fantasy based on history. Tigana was one of his early works, and I think one of his best. It evokes the loss of culture that comes with invasion, the loss of a sense of home that an occupying empire brings, and the importance of remembering for identity. It also contains that elusive element of grace that I seem to be fond of.
It seems that if I were going to write historical fiction, I would lean toward alternative history — something with a twist. I’m not sure whether I lean most toward working with the kinds of minor twists found in Cryptonomicon or the much larger twists of Tigana which require imagining a completely new world loosely based on some kind of history. In some ways the completely other world could be easier — I could do whatever I wanted in that new world. But the minor twists present an interesting challenge — is the alt.history believable? Could it really have happened that way?