Pieces of History

Review by Cheryl Morgan for her online magazine, Emerald City.

It is a lost art, mosaic making. Few craftsmen these days can make a picture from a myriad coloured stones, let alone master the higher art of doing so in glass on a roof, playing with light as well as with colour. We might have been on the verge of re-discovering it with early computers when pictures could only be made from letter-sized blocks, but technology quickly outflanked that effort, making the picture elements too small for the artist to need to concern herself with. So mosaic making remains one of those things that the ancients did far better than we can manage.

However, making a picture from a number of disparate elements is not confined to mosaics. Words can be used to make characters, events and locations. And these can be combined to make a story. The art of the writer is not that far removed from that of the mosaicist. Guy Gavriel Kay recognises this, and with mild conceit has constructed the prologue to his Sarantine Mosaic series as a patchwork of people and places designed to set the scene for what follows. As a result, the story takes a while to get going. But once it does the reader is blessed with one of the finest fantasies I have read in a long time.

Like the mosaicist, Kay takes particular care with the elements that make up his picture, in particular those known as characters. Almost anyone of any significance in the story
is picked up, examined from all angles, scrutinised for flaws, and placed lovingly into the narrative at exactly the right place to add to the overall vision. Again it makes for slow going at the start, but you come away from the books feeling that you know a whole lot of new people really well.

Ostensibly the book is a thinly disguised, if somewhat distorted, history. Crispin, a Rhodian (Roman) mosaicist, is summoned to the court of Valerius and Alixana (Justinian and Theodora) in Sarantium (Byzantium). There he is to work on the roof of a new temple that the Emperor is having constructed (St. Sophia). Once arrived he plays a small but significant part in the history of that great city.

In truth, however, Crispin is a literary device, a lowly but conveniently placed observer who allows Kay to tell a much greater tale. On the historical stage, the books are the story of three women: one a dancer who has become an empress; one an aristocrat who dreams of being an empress; and one a barbarian queen who has lost her throne. It is a tale of a great romance, a vaunting ambition, and a burning hatred. It is precisely the sort of grand design of which good fantasy is made.

The overt fantasy element, however, is quite small. It is used in part to provide Crispin with a sense of the divine that will inspire his work, and mould his character. In addition it provides a convenient plot device when the hero needs to know things that are hidden from him. Anyone hoping for elves and dragons will be sorely disappointed. But the rest of the book more than makes up for this.

To my mind the best element of the books is the subtlety of the politics. Most writers of fantasy have only the faintest grasp of how a royal court works. Kay, however, is second only to Dorothy Dunnett in portraying the clever games played by courtiers. He is by no means as cunning or cruel as Dunnett, but he has made his politics believably subtle and devious without making social nuance the be all and end all of the book.

Then there is the history. Sarantium is a very thinly disguised version of Byzantium, and Kay has clearly taken a lot of trouble researching it. Somewhere along the way he because fascinated with chariot racing (or maybe he just watched Ben Hur once too often as a kid). The parallels between Sarantium’s obsession with the goings on in the Hippodrome and modern sporting events are startling.

The history is also where the fantasy element comes to the fore. In my review of Wiscon I commented that fantasies work on mythic logic that demands that story outcomes should be True and Right. What Kay has done with this series is take the basic story of Justinian and Theodora and adjust the outcome to make a better story.

The real history is somewhat less romantic, though as Kay notes the historian Procopius (Pertennius in the books) is so unpleasant about Theodora that his testimony must be suspect.

Anyone interested in an alternative angle on the story should check out Count Belisarius by the very wonderful Robert Graves. Belisarius is Leontes in Kay’s novels and is one of the few Byzantine leaders to come out of history with a reasonably glowing reputation. Though anyone who has read Graves’ excellent Claudius novels, or seen the Derek Jacobi TV series, will know that, unlike Kay, he makes no allowances to sensibility when describing the cruelties and debaucheries of ancient courts.

The story comes as two volumes, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, but like a Tad Williams novel the parts should be viewed as a single work. Indeed, the first book simply stops. There is no grand finale, and the story picks up where it has left off in the second volume. You need to read both back to back.

Historical purists will, I suspect, be annoyed at how Kay has simplified and romanticised the story. I have no sympathy with them. He made it quite clear when he changed all the names that he wasn’t just re-telling history.

Others may complain that Kay has whitewashed many of the participants, especially Theodora. Some of that charge is fair. But, as I have pointed out before, Theodora has been pretty badly treated by Procopius. She isn’t the only strong woman from history to have been sniped at by jealous men, and she won’t be the last. Besides, she must have had tremendous strength of character and determination to get where she did. If she was vicious as well, hey, that’s politics.

But I think viewing Kay’s work in the context of actual history is a mistake. He has made it quite clear that he is not just re-telling what happened. He has told it as it might have been, perhaps as it should have been. It is fantasy, and he has done it very well indeed.

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