New Standards of the Historical Fantasy Genre

Reviewed by Doug Barbour for The Edmonton Journal

Finally, two years after Sailing to Sarantium, Guy Gavriel Kay has given us the second panel, so to speak, of The Sarantine Mosaic, his truly astonishing historical fantasy of another world’s ancient Byzantium. Lord of Emperors expands upon the earlier novel, offering readers a complex and compelling vision of a city and an empire, in the midst of violent change. Indeed, although the important characters of the first volume continue their interwoven lives, and some highly intriguing new characters come to the city at the heart of the world, Sarantium itself is perhaps the central and most extraordinary character of The Sarantine Mosaic.

Sailing to Sarantium was in many ways a quest, the tale of how the fine young mosaicist, Caius Crispis (Crispin, to his friends), came from the far West of the empire to Sarantium to work on the ceiling of the great cathedral of Jad, the sun god. Lord of Emperors tells a much more complicated story of the political changes that occur during the year Crispin creates his great art. Where Crispin, mourning the death of his wife and children, was the central character in the first volume, here he is simply one of a huge cast, all of whom have important roles in the drama of private and public lives that Kay has so carefully crafted.

The Emperor and Empress, Valerius II and his ex-dancer wife, Alixana, are slowly constructing not just a great cathedral, but a rebuilt empire, and
it requires all their combined intelligence, guile, wit, and power just to begin such a project.

Like the various friends he has made at different levels of society, all of whom play their parts in the complex pattern that is The Sarantine Mosaic, Crispin is just one of the many pieces they attempt to manipulate to achieve what they believe is the greater good for all. But, just as the Ninth Driver, Death, can always disrupt the chariot races, so too there are many figures who can, and do, alter the plans of even the subtlest and most intelligent of rulers.

Lord of Emperors begins in the eastern desert country of Bassania, where Rustem, a village doctor who has travelled widely and learned much, saves the life of the King of Kings. As a result, his monarch sends him to Sarantium as a spy. Rustem is the most important, and the most intriguing, of the new characters in this novel, and Kay precisely catches his combination of humility before his work, arrogance about what he knows, and genuine curiosity about everything he encounters.

Once in Sarantium, a series of wonderfully believable coincidences brings Rustem into the lives of charioteers, senators, dancers, even the Empress. His abilities and his desire to do his job properly change many people’s lives. Although he and Crispin never really get to know each other, fate has chosen them both to play important roles in the great city.

But that is the way magic, if such it can be called, works in these novels — as something mysterious, something beyond most peoples’ understanding. Indeed, in a city where everyone knows about the strange fires that flicker overhead in the night, no one ever mentions them or the “half-world” they represent. Yet, like Jad and the very real powers attached to his worship, the half-world is part of the numinous, what overwhelms both sense and language, yet cries out to be known in the heart. Kay’s greatest achievement is to create characters whose rich inner lives give them an appeal that keeps a reader interested in every encounter. His women are wilful, strong, and always interesting, and this is especially true of the Empress and the young Queen of the Antae who swore Crispin to her cause.

Kay has become very adept at catching the nuances of his characters in a pertinent phrase or description, but he also represents the ways many of them think as they act, and he does this particularly well in scenes of high drama in the court. Such set-pieces, along with a description of a chariot race from both the charioteers’ and some connoisseurs’ points of view, are themselves worth the price of admission. Every aspect of Lord of Emperors reveals a master at work. As with Sailing to Sarantium, Kay has constructed Lord of Emperors as a literary mosaic of great intricacy and delicacy, for all its adventures, its courtly intrigues, its confrontations with death and various powers.

This second volume is in some ways more complicated and less specific, for it has to render highly public lives, even when it also reveals the deeply personal desires that underlie them. But like the first volume, it exemplifies the mosaicist’s art, as a delightfully metafictional touch in the epilogue makes clear.

Although it can stand on its own, Lord of Emperors is a very deliberate continuation of Sailing to Sarantium, and I would argue that the two volumes should be read together. Now complete, The Sarantine Mosaic takes its place as a major historical fantasy, one which redefines the possibilities of and sets new standards for the genre. Simply not to be missed.

Review by Wayne MacLaurin for

Guy Gavriel Kay is a true craftsman. His work is incredibly expansive and rich in detail. And, as is often the case with great artists, it takes Kay some considerable time to develop his masterpieces.

It’s been two years since Sailing to Sarantium appeared to rave reviews. In that first book of The Sarantine Mosaic, Kay began the tale of Crispin the mosaicist and Emperor Valerius. Lord of Emperors now concludes the story.

However, Guy Gavriel Kay is by no means satisfied continuing the tale only with the cast of characters introduced in the first volume. In fact, readers can be excused if they think, at first, that they may have picked up a different novel altogether. Lord of Emperors starts thousands of miles from Sarantium with an entirely new cast of characters, and it is some time before we rejoin the familiar tale begun in Sailing to Sarantium. As might be expected, Lord of Emperors teems with colourful plots and subplots. Kay serves up assassinations, mobs, romance, a climactic chariot race, fabulous dinners and a dizzying cast of characters. All of this is tied up with Crispin’s mosaic work on Emperor Valerius’ sanctuary, as the Emperor continues his efforts to leave his mark on history.

Lord of Emperors begins with the introduction of Rustem of Kerakek, a physician who saves the life of Bassania’s King of Kings. His reward is far different than he might have expected and Rustem soon finds himself “sailing to Sarantium.” From the very moment Rustem sets foot in the fabled city, he is caught up in that ingenious web of intrigue introduced in Sailing to Sarantium. The story advances at a dizzying pace with the various characters stepping onto and off of centre stage as Kay continues to lay the pieces that make up his own literary mosaic. The twists and turns are cunningly laid out and pretty much impossible to describe without giving away the story and the ending. Suffice it to say that Crispin does eventually complete his mosaic, if perhaps not the one the reader first expected.

Kay exhibits rare talent, both with realistic, three-dimensional characters and an incredibly complex setting. All of the many characters, from lowliest foot-soldier to high priest, from Alixana to Valerius, are rich and complex. Seldom does the reader encounter a character, however minor, that seems flat or misplaced. Similarly, Sarantium itself comes to life within the pages of the novel. The reader is drawn into the tale and lives the rivalry of the sport factions of the Greens and the Blues, listens in on the intrigues of the court and watches from the shadows as foul deeds are committed and heroes step forth.

Upon finishing Lord of Emperors, I could only sit back, catch my breath and try to imagine what wonders Guy Gavriel Kay will treat us to next time out….

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