Sailing to Sarantium
Allie’s column of reviews is called ‘From the Observatory’ and she uses a rating system with scoring out of 5 moons.
Unlike such prolific authors as Piers Anthony, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and Raymond Feist, Guy Gavriel Kay has written just seven books over the course of his career as a fantasy author. And, unlike such authors of serial epics as David Drake, Terry Goodkind, and Robert Jordan (at least before the new genre-wide publishing strategy went into effect last year), his books have not been released annually but at significantly longer intervals. Kay’s last book, Lions of Al-Rassan, was released in hardback over three years ago in mid-1995. Relative rarity, painstaking research, and meticulous accuracy combine to make Sailing to Sarantium (a historical fantasy of 7th century Byzantium) a rare gem for fantasy-lovers.
Amongst Crispin’s people, the expression “sailing to Sarantium,” meant that one 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” (41). Crispin, a mosaicist from Rhodes in the hinterlands of the Sarantine Empire, journeys to Sarantium to fulfill an imperial summons declined by his partner. Accompanied by Linon, a mechanical sparrow invested with mind, soul, and voice, and a hired sword named Vargos, and entrusted with a secret message by a desperate young queen, Crispin encounters people and mystical forces that challenge his be-liefs and sense of self. He reaches Sarantium, with a coterie of unlikely friends, only to find that his voyage has just begun. For here he is confronted with the byzantine political machinations of the imperial court and the seductive allure of two powerful women. Both pawn and prize in a game he only partly comprehends, Crispin must rely upon his wits, his “puzzle-solving” mind, to stay alive and complete the artisanal commission the Emperor has awarded him. Crispin, and almost every person he comes in contact with, may be truly said to be “sailing to Sarantium.”
While some authors begin with a character they want to create or a story they wish to tell, Kay has said that he likes to begin with a question and then create a setting in which to explore it. In Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, Kay examines what happens to the social space in which men and women interact during a holy war (paraphrase of remarks of G.G.Kay found in various sources). Since The Sarantine Mosaic is not yet complete, I cannot hope to nail down his ultimate question with any accuracy. Still it is possible to suggest several themes that Kay seems to be developing: (1) how art, politics, and personal aspirations interact; (2) how people react when poised at the verge of great triumph or tragedy, when faced with extraordinary challenges and opportunities; and (3) what happens to binary oppositions–truth and falsity, orthodoxy and heresy, light and dark, noble and peasant, official culture and folk culture–when their members come into contact. Perhaps, however, the most important aspect of Sailing to Sarantium (and Kay’s other historical fantasies) is the gauntlet it throws down. Kay challenges fantasy authors to avoid rehearsing cliché thematic battles between good and evil, and to stop relying on magic to make their worlds exciting and new. Moreover, Kay’s carefully crafted tales demand that academics and critics give speculative fiction the credit it deserves as a form of art. By creating historically accu-rate worlds and tackling pertinent present day concerns, Kay shows the value of speculative fiction for creating and testing sociological hypotheses.
Kay’s writing scintillates. He creates a textual mosaic, shimmering with the play of light over tiny glass tesserae in the lamp-lit chiaroscuro of a Byzantine cathedral. Sailing to Sarantium is truly a pleasure to read. If a flaw may be found with this novel, it is that the plot sometimes seems to take a back seat to Kay’s “light effects” (style and
historical accuracy). My guess, however, is that the plot shines through in Book 2 of The Sarantine Mosaic. I hope we do not have to wait the two years that has suddenly become the industry standard for serial works of fantasy to find out. In a vast sea of mediocrity, Kay aspires to genius–Sailing to Sarantium does not fall short of the mark. For walking off the beaten path, for style, craftsmanship and grace, and for a hero that makes my heart beat faster, I give Sailing to Sarantium four and one half moons.