Sailing to Sarantium
For some time now, Canada’s Guy Gavriel Kay has been recognized as one of the finest writers of high fantasy in the world. He first achieved fame with one of the finest post-Tolkien fantasy trilogies, The Fionavar Tapestry. Since then, careful readers of his work have watched him slowly build up a complex and complete world, with its two moons, one blue one white, and its vast and various history. As he has constructed not only another world but the historical circumstances of its various countries and peoples, in Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, andThe Lions of Al-Rassan, he has quietly but consistently moved his narratives ever further away from the easy magic and simple narratives of its power that sign the conventions of so many banal copy-cat fantasies today. Now, in Sailing to Sarantium, Book 1 of The Sarantine Mosaic, he has achieved one of the finest works of historical fantasy I have read in years.
Kay’s real magic lies in the way he has created analogues for countries and periods of our own history, yet managed to make these analogous worlds live in their own highly particular ways, under their own highly particular gods and historical inheritances. We see our own world as in a mirror in these narratives, but as Samuel R. Delany has one of the geniuses of his own unusual sword and sorcery tales point out, what we see in a mirror is always a distortion, not an exact replica of reality. To read these fictions only as if they were odd commentaries on our own histories would be to do them a great disservice. The countries, their histories, and the people who inherit and make them, achieve their own integrity and individuality in these finely wrought novels.
Certainly, in Sailing to Sarantium, Kay has created
a rich and highly engaging collection of characters, from the bottom of the Sarantine empire’s society to the very top, for the emperor and empress are among the major characters as well as active directors of the plot. The history Sailing to Sarantium carefully constructs has to do with the emperor’s decision to build the greatest of cathedrals to the god of his people, and of the broken Rhodian Empire, whose capital city in the far west was burned by pagans and is only a ruined citadel now. Although the empire now ruled from Sarantium, greatest and most holy of cities, is always in a state of crisis, and Valerius II must balance war, empire building, the feuds among the faithful and much else, he and his empress will build the Great Sanctuary at whatever cost to the empire and themselves.
To them they call the greatest artisans of the empire, one of whom, an older mosaicist, insists his younger colleague, Caius Crispus, accept the invitation. Crispin, as he is known to his friends, must travel from the west, through an often terrifying wilderness to Sarantium, where he may or may not be killed for his presumption. A man who has suffered profound personal loss, he discovers new friends and a reason to live en route. He also, most dangerously, meets, if ambiguously, what might be one of the older gods. But then, as so many figures remind us, the phrase “Sailing to Sarantium” has long meant changing one’s life, and the Rilkean overtones are deliberate here, I believe.
If many writers of high fantasy depend upon a banal and conventional representation of magic, Kay is after bigger game. His characters, with their complex personal histories and quirky intelligence, come face to face with something deeper and darker – mystery, the numinous, what overwhelms both sense and language, yet cries out to be known in the heart.
But, as I have suggested, he can also, again unlike too many fantasists, create characters whose rich inner lives give them an appeal that keeps a reader interested in every encounter they have with one another. Crispin is the central figure here, for he must deal with everyone from the emperor and empress and their courtiers down through soldiers and various craftsmen to ordinary people of the serving classes. Many of these people are women, and although women are generally represented as somewhat confined in such a culture, these too are represented as complex and evocative figures. Kay has become very adept at catching the nuances of his various characters in a pertinent phrase or description, but he also represents the ways many of them think as they act. This is narration of a high quality, indeed.
Indeed, in a novel whose central character is an artist, a maker of great mosaics, Kay has constructed his novel as a literary mosaic of great intricacy and delicacy, for all its adventures, its courtly intrigues, its confrontations with death and various powers, some of them beyond human understanding. There are some wonderful moments when a scene erupts in the reader’s mind as images planted hundreds of pages earlier come together to achieve a particular effect. And there are whole chapters which shift back and forth from night to day, from past to present, the intercutting full of sharp emotional contrasts fulfilling the core mosaic idea of sharply contrasted colours, as opposed to painterly blendings. Thus the novel itself exemplifies the mosaicist’s art, as carefully explained in Crispen’s meditations at different points throughout the narrative.
I have, really, only one complaint about Sailing to Sarantium, and that is that this wonderfully complex and engaging novel is only one half of the whole, and that we have to wait at least a year for the rest. If you like historical fantasy at all, you will find in Sailing to Sarantium a masterful example of the genre, one which perhaps redefines its possibilities. Most other such works pale in its light.