I’ve read all of A Song of Ice and Fire, but I haven’t actually read that much besides, from GRRM. But it’s enough to make this list. Still, talking too much about GRRM will spoil a lot for a lot of people, so I’ll limit myself.
3. Windhaven: This book was co-written with Lisa Tuttle, and follows a girl with an impossible dream. She wants to be a flyer, but wings are passed down in families by tradition. The book follows three arcs of her life, beginning with when she changes her world.
This book is bittersweet, because it goes beyond the apex of the protagonist. She can’t live her dream forever, and there’s a kind of sadness to the interjection of that kind of reality into a triumph.
2. A Game of Thrones: The first book. Everyone who’s either read the books or watched the first season knows why this is on this list. GRRM surprised a lot of people with the choices he made for this book, and let us know his characters aren’t safe. When they make the wrong decisions, there will be consequences. And holding on to their integrity is its own kind of danger.
1. A Storm of Swords: This book outdid the rest of the series with respect to character death, shock, and the tragedy of the deaths. Two major character deaths stand out (one POV character). And one major event stands out. In infamy. It hit me hard, much harder then the first book, when it happened. It hit a lot of people hard, and twitter can prove it.
Nonetheless, there’s one more thing in this book to relevant to this list. TV fans–you’re not there yet. Yes, I imagine it’ll hurt. Vague details follow: One minor character death can’t be ignored, given how compelling he was and how much most of us wanted him to win in that moment.
Guy Gavriel Kay
All the following books are historical fantasies.
3. Under Heaven: Shen Tai’s father was a general–during a time of peace between Kitan (his country) and Tagur, Shen Tai chooses to honor his father’s memory by burying the dead from both sides of a battle between the two nations. This deed earns him a lavish gift from the Taguran Empire–far too lavish. The gift puts him in a great deal of danger, and forces him onto the political scene. Not necessarily at the best time, either, as a struggle for power threatens to incite civil violence.
Every standalone by Guy Gavriel Kay has at least one tragic scene that really hits me. By the time I reached it in Under Heaven, I wasn’t sure it was going to come, but it did. And there was something amazing about how it was conducted, because I didn’t even care about the character until this scene came. But the poignancy about this character, this young character, having to die because of the things that her family did–choosing to die nobly for something she didn’t do, in order to allow the country to move forward–I can’t say that didn’t hurt.
2. Tigana: Where do I even begin? A country was conquered by two foreign powers, and the novel follows the rebels who plot for their independence. But more, one of conquerors lost his son to one of the provinces of this country–as a wizard, his revenge was to erase the memory of province’s past splendor and to destroy the spirit of its people with cruel treatment. He even erased the name of the providence from the minds of those who didn’t live there, giving them instead a name that cut at their pride. A huge theme of the novel is memory. It’s about a people losing their identity, and what it does to them.
More than any individual loss of a character, it’s the collective losses suffered by the people of Tigana that define the tragedy of this book. The things that are done to the people of Tigana are horrific, and yet the man responsible for them is shown to have a great capacity for kindness, aside from his blind hatred towards the people he blames for his son’s death. The book portrays a people fighting to reclaim their identity and their pride, and the losses along the way lend the story a sense of poignancy. Both what the characters do and don’t know can hurt the reader.
It’s almost a toss up whether this book should place first or second on this list. It probably deserves to be first–I believe it is genuinely the best book I have ever read. But the first place book is my favorite, and it’s tragedy is more personal to me.
1. Lions of al-Rassan: The former kingdom of Esperaňa is divided between Jaddite and Asharite control–but now a war is brewing, and the Jaddites intend to take this chance to win back their country for themselves. In the midst of this a Jaddite, an Asharite, and a Kindath (whose people face oppression by both Jaddites and Asharites) meet in a neutral territory where what they are doesn’t matter so much as who they are. During their time there, they gain mutual respect for each other and develop a friendship. But both the Jaddite and the Asharite are key figures in their own nations. Each of them has a separate set of loyalties and responsibilities. And war is coming.
This book was so painful because of how strong the friendship between the three leads became during their time removed from the conflicts of their people. The entire part of the book where they could interact with each other honestly, as individuals, was engaging and fun. And with every progressing chapter, I could feel just a little bit more trepidation, because the whole book was set up so that this couldn’t end well.
There’s a certain brutality to the idea that we could greatly admire and care about people we’ve been set against, if only circumstances were different. The way that these people were torn apart–the way they tore themselves apart in order to make choices that they could live with–is the reason why I think this is Guy Gavriel Kay’s most tragic work.
I’ve said my piece, so I suppose it’s fair to let you guys have some input as well. So I’m putting in a poll, for most tragic work. Top two only, to make it manageable, with multiple answers allowed.