Copyright May 12, 1999.
Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written. More of Kate’s reviews can be found at http://www.steelypips.org/elsewhere.html
“To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life was on the cusp of change: poised for emergent greatness, brilliance, fortune–or else at the very precipice of a final and absolute fall as he met something too vast for his capacity.”
–Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium
Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel, Sailing to Sarantium, is a fine example of the strengths of his writing: deft characterization, vivid worldbuilding, and a continuing tribute to civilization and culture.Sarantium, the first book of the Sarantine Mosaic diptych, is both more historical and more fantastic than Kay’s recent books. Set in an analogue Byzantium during the reign of Justinian I, many events described correspond closely enough to those of our world that even someone with encyclopedia-only knowledge of the period (such as myself) can easily identify the characters, places, and even the dates that the novel adapts. However, a throw-away line in the prologue is the first signal that this is not a “straight” historical:
Fotius the sandalmaker had wagered money he couldn’t afford to lose that the Blues’ principal charioteer would win the first three races today . . . . If he hadn’t seen a ghost on the roof of the colonnade across from his shop yesterday afternoon, Fotius would have felt entirely sure of the wager.
A “half-world” of supernatural beings is broadly acknowledged by the people of the novel. Though magic is not frequently seen, it is nevertheless important: an encounter with the half-world in the middle of the book will resonate backwards and forwards throughout the story. Both the mundane and the supernatural worlds are built carefully; chariot races at the Hippodrome and sacrifices to pagan gods are rendered equally vividly and precisely.
Against this fascinating world is set the story of Caius Crispus, a mosaicist summoned from Batiara to Sarantium to work on the rebuilding of the Great Sanctuary. Crispin is a contrary, irritable, passionate man who loved his work and his family greatly; after plague took his entire family, work was the only thing that engaged him even slightly. The core of the story is Crispin’s movement from “following [his family] into a living death” to accepting that he wants to live, work, and leave a mark on the world he is inextricably engaged with. Crispin is an interesting and sympathetic protagonist, and I found his inner and outer journeys compelling.
However, Crispin is not the sole focus of the book. To clumsily summarize an elegant technique, the book is, as the series title suggests, constructed as a mosaic: the story, particularly the major plot events, is shown through multiple points of view, where some dominate but are accented by many minor ones. Each of the characters contributes something distinctive to the whole, both in themselves and in their perceptions of events. This technique also rewards careful reading, as small details relayed in one area refer to and reflect larger ones in others. Mosaics and puzzles are the motif of the novel, and a reader has the double pleasure of solving puzzles posed to the characters and recognizing the details of the novel’s puzzle-like structure.
Two of the characters that are very good indeed at solving puzzles are Valerius and Alixana, Emperor and Empress of the Sarantine Empire. (Some people have suggested that they are too good to be believable; I found them credible, but can understand the concern.) Among the puzzles they are presented with is the question of Batiara, which Valerius strongly wants to reattach to the empire. This situation, the central question of the wider context of the book, appears to have diverged from the historical model by the end of the book, adding suspense to the plot: while it is easy to find out what happened to Italy under Justinian in our world, one cannot predict what might happen to Batiara under Valerius.
The contrasts between the wonders of Sarantium and the ruins of Batiara also illuminate a constant theme of Kay’s work, the beauty and transience of civilization. As an artist surrounded by military, political, and religious figures at Valerius’s Court, Crispin frequently launches into defenses of the worth and value of art–and has the tenuous basis on which art rests pointed out to him. The question of how one approaches life and art reflects and lends another dimension to the question of if and how Batiara will be rejoined to the Empire.
The pleasures of the book are neither solely intellectual nor solely historical, of course. Kay is generally known for characters and emotional conflicts that deeply affect the reader. Sarantium does not have the same emotional pyrotechnics  as other books; to put it more subjectively, while there are emotionally charged scenes, none of them made me cry. However, this should not be considered a criticism, since this book is setting the scene for the presumed dramas of the next. Despite this, it does not end on a cliffhanger, but, as noted above, at a momentary point of calm and purpose for Crispin; this allows the reader to feel that the novel ended at an appropriate, non-arbitrary place.
In summary, Sailing to Sarantium is a novel of many pleasures. I highly recommend it to all but the most wary of unfinished series; they have only to wait until next spring, when the second book is expected to be published.
 to borrow a phrase from Trent Goulding.