Sailing to Sarantium
Reviewed by Bill Sheehan for Barnes & Noble
Guy Gavriel Kay’s career in fantasy began with his editorial contributions to J.R.R. Tolkien’s posthumous epic, The Silmarillion. Since then, he has established himself as a remarkable and original fantasist in his own right, having published more than half a dozen large, ambitious novels in the last 15 years. His latest, Sailing to Sarantium, is the first in a projected two-volume sequence called The Sarantine Mosaic, an intricate, richly imagined work that reinforces Kay’s position as one of the finest contemporary practitioners of classical high fantasy.
In the manner of his previous two novels, A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of AL-Rassan, Kay has once again used an actual historical setting — the early Byzantine Empire under Justinian I — as the basis for his fiction. In his new novel, Byzantium is transformed into Sarantium, and Justinian is reimagined as Valerius II, ruler of a beleaguered empire surrounded on all sides by pagan and barbarian hordes, and threatened from within by a complex series of political divisions, religious controversies, and palace intrigues. Valerius — a shrewd, resourceful ruler — is driven by two equally grandiose ambitions: to restore the remote western province of Batiara to Sarantine dominion and to build a monumental new cathedral in honor of the reigning deity of Sarantium, the sun god known as Jad. These twin ambitions stand at the novel’s heart, and they are the motivating forces behind all its most significant events.
As Sailing to Sarantium opens, a master mosaicist and Batiaran citizen named Caius Crispus — commonly known as Crispin —
accepts an imperial invitation to travel to Sarantium to help create a mosaic for the newly constructed Jaddite cathedral. The invitation is actually intended for Crispin’s partner, Martinien, who is old, settled, and unwilling to leave his home. Crispin, who has recently lost his wife and two daughters to an outbreak of plague, travels to Sarantium in Martinien’s place, hoping to find, through the practice of his craft, a renewal of his lost sense of purpose. To complicate matters further, he is also charged — by Gisel, the besieged young queen of Batiara — with delivering a dangerous and desperate message intended for Valerius alone.
Crispin’s journey takes him through lawless territories still dedicated to forbidden pagan practices. During the course of that journey, he rescues a young slave girl about to be sacrificed in an annual blood rite, encounters the earthly manifestation of a primordial god of the forest called a zubir, and is beaten senseless by the imperial soldiers sent to escort him to the emperor. Once he arrives in Sarantium, complications continue to accumulate.
Crispin, an outspoken, acerbic man with little left to lose, manages, in his first appearance before the emperor, to challenge a number of commonly held aesthetic assumptions, to secure the dismissal of the reigning chief mosaicist, and to alienate some significant members of the imperial court. Within days of his arrival, he becomes the target of two attempted assassinations and an equally dangerous attempted seduction. Caught in a web of conflicting agendas and incomprehensible intrigues, he must struggle to survive while simultaneously struggling to shape his vision of the mosaic he has been commissioned to create, a mosaic that, should he live to complete it, will be his own greatest legacy to the Sarantium of the future.
Kay enlivens and enriches his fictional portrait of the Byzantine world by showing us that world from the shifting perspectives of cooks, queens, slaves, sorcerers, soldiers, artisans, politicians, and charioteers. (His accounts of chariot racing in the Hippodrome are particularly vivid and well rendered.). Despite the deliberate lack of closure, Sailing to Sarantium is both absorbing and satisfying. If the second volume — which will, I hope, appear before too much time has passed — is as good as the first, then The Sarantine Mosaic could stand as a benchmark work, one that helps to raise the standards in a genre too often populated by the dull, the derivative, and the second-rate.