Reprinted with kind permission.
“Vollendet das ewige Werk!”-“Completed, the eternal work!”-cries Wotan at first sight of the newly built Valhalla in Wagner’s Das Rheingold. Ideally, that is what the fan of Guy Gavriel Kay should be crying, upon closing the cover of the second volume of Kay’s diptych The Sarantine Mosaic-or one could imagine Kay exclaiming it before shipping his MS. off to the publisher-or above all, it is what Kay’s mosaicist-hero Caius Crispin should shout if he ever gets to set the last piece of glass into his panorama of Holy Jad and the rest of the universe on the dome of the incomparably splendid Sanctuary of Jad’s Holy Wisdom. But as Kay’s characters are regularly reminded, it’s a less than ideal world; and Lord of Emperors, though richly satisfying in a number of respects, may not be quite the crowning achievement one might have hoped for after reading the first half, Sailing to Sarantium.
Book II is essentially a continuation rather than a sequel. Having reviewed Book I for NYRSF (#130, June 1999), this writer must humbly refer the reader back to that issue and try to avoid redundancy-always a tricky matter when a concluding volume “merely” fulfills the narrative promises made in Book I rather than going off in startling new directions. Some differences between the volumes are worth citing, however. Curiously, fantasy elements seem to play a much smaller part in Book II-beyond the sheer fact that Sarantium is a sort of alternate-universe version of Byzantium of the 500s, on a planet with two moons in its sky. The soul-containing mechanical birds devised by the wizard Zoticus play an insignificant role in Lord of Emperors, though there is a “bad” bird, whose origins we never learn, that is important to one phase of the plot. Crispin continues to be haunted by his encounter with the bull of the Aldwood, but the creature makes no new appearance other than in Crispin’s art. One significant new fantasy element is the precognitive power of a new character, young Shaski; of lesser importance are the eerie and inexplicable fires that flicker through the streets of Sarantium at night: these have no plot function, but serve nicely as both atmosphere and homage to Yeats’s poem “Byzantium.” Otherwise the focus is ve
ry much what it might have been in a straight historical novel-imperial politics and other Byz… er, Sarantine intrigues, and the throb of daily life in a great metropolis, from the sinister alleyways to the glorious Hippodrome. The rest of this review must turn to matters having little to do with fantastic literature, though much to do with good storytelling.
Kay does introduce a few major new characters. Most important is the Bassanid (roughly Persian) physician Rustem, father of Shaski, who sails to Sarantium himself and who is destined, Kay clearly implies, to play a significant role in the life of Crispin. Unfortunately, here is a case where the novel seems not to live up to its promise, for though the two men meet, Rustem is never as involved in Crispin’s life as portents have indicated. Rustem is more interesting as a parallel to Crispin. Both men are stubborn and fierce in temper, but more significantly, both are masters of their profession, which means among other things that they are extremely sharp observers-and when these characters are paralleled by yet others supremely gifted in their fields, most notably Scortius the charioteer and Strumosus the chef, we can see that one of Kay’s ultimate fascinations is “art” in its broadest sense. (More on this later.)
Also new to Book II are two members of the family of Bonosus, Master of the Senate: his reckless son Cleander, a villain in the early chapters who becomes very interestingly something more, and his young wife Thenaïs, secret lover of Scortius. On the other hand, some important characters from Book I, most notably Kasia, play surprisingly peripheral roles in Book II, and puzzlingly, Crispin’s apprentice Pardos, a minor figure in I, makes a major reappearance near the beginning of II-but again, never does much of anything. As for a short section featuring a Mohammed lookalike about to go off to great things in the desert, this may be the beginning of some future novel of the fall of Sarantium, or it may be there simply to remind the reader that even the greatest empires will someday meet their match. (Kay also seems to be laying groundwork for a novel set in Esperana, the locale of his earlier quasi-Moorish-Spain novel, The Lions of Al-Rassan-unless he is just making allusions to the latter-when he shuffles a group of his characters off to that land.) Whatever reservations one might have about the full success of Kay’s overarching structure-and one can’t help looking for such achievement with the magnificence of the Sanctuary (a.k.a. Hagia Sophia) foregrounded so often in the tale-the author remains absolutely superb in his construction of shorter units. For a saga of 530 fairly small-print pages, Lord of Emperors contains two sequences-125 and 208 pages respectively-that are of unusual length considering that each covers only a roughly 24-hour period. The first opens on the day of Kasia and Carullus’ wedding and the arrival of Rustem in Sarantium, but the truly virtuoso section, the last 70 pages of this sequence, is a series of scenes containing seven sexual encounters (some of them perhaps inspired by whatever spirit of Eros might have been present for the nuptials). The range is considerable, from the expected (the wedding couple) to the perverted (the kidnapping of a soldier by the obscene Lysippus for some unnamed but fatal practice), but more noteworthy and complex are the quite unexpected, though plausible enough, pairings of six of our major characters. The whole sequence-its scenes overlapping in time and connected through descriptions of shadowy Sarantine streets with figures flitting through the night-is touchingly concluded by a dialogue between the Emperor and Empress, one of several scattered through the two volumes that establish a tender bond of love between these often ruthless people. As for the 200-page sequence, this is not the place to list the momentous events that transpire; what must be noted is Kay’s ability to sustain tension and surprise over such a long stretch and with such a large cast of characters and overlapping timeframes.
Crispin remains the central protagonist of the novel, though the plot calls for him to be more an assistant to others, and a witness of events, rather than an initiator of actions as in Sailing to Sarantium. In contrast, several of the female characters are even more active than before, instigating quite a few of the major developments of the book-though acting as rivals, never in concert. Kay takes a risk in featuring so many strong, clever, haughty, stupendously beautiful women in one novel: the Empress (and former dancer) Alixana, the deposed Queen Gisel of the Antae, the revenge-seeking Styliane Daleinus, the current dancing favorite, Shirin of the Greens, and, less important, Thenaïs. Fortunately, he manages to give them all somewhat distinctive personalities (and avoids sinking into campiness), while underlining their dynamic (and often dangerous) natures by having the Middle Eastern Rustem astounded by such take-charge women, unimaginable in his world.
As in Book I, Kay shifts among the viewpoints of a great many major and minor characters, sometimes breaking up a single scene into several sections, each with a different (though still third-person) point of view. In a variation on the realtor’s mantra, Kay’s motto seems to be “Perspective, perspective, perspective!” This is partly a matter of selecting just the right character as a means of maximizing suspense and shaping our experience of an action-whether we’re following an Emperor alert to an assassination attempt or some soldier hunting for an Empress but discovering a prostitute plying her trade. Another kind of perspective is given to us through Kay’s sustained ironic tone, coolly distancing himself and us from the characters, particularly the more scheming ones, as in the following report of the Bassanid “King of Kings” thinking of himself and his family, any of whom he would (and does) murder to sustain his own power: “His eagle’s gaze was clear, his plaited beard still black, no hint of grey age descending upon him. Impatience among grown sons was to be expected, as were lethal intrigues among the royal wives” (4).
Kay’s perspective on the Sarantine Emperor, beloved or reviled by most of the other characters, is more complex. Crispin (and by implication Kay) feels great sympathy for Valerius-oddly enough, considering that imperialistic ambition and willingness to assassinate are only two of Valerius’s less attractive qualities. Yet he is presented as a shining figure compared to the more crudely ruthless Bassarid emperor. The difference between them is not merely a matter of finesse or intelligence (though it is that too); Valerius is partially “redeemed” by his love for Alixana, by certain loyalties, and most definitely by a love of art-he has the utmost appreciation of the architecture of the Sanctuary and the talent and designs of Crispin. The reader may have more reservations about Valerius than the author does, though Kay’s sustained irony does extend to Valerius as well. Incidentally, Kay reminds us that the mosaicist’s art too is a matter of perspective, for the tesserae must be set at precise angles to each other for the viewer at a great distance to get the right effect-somewhat, perhaps, like the literary artist building up “facets” of a character by contrasting one with another.
One other kind of perspective which Kay manipulates constantly, though always at surprising moments, has to do with time. The author both foreshadows events and leaps ahead, even hundreds of years, to look back. (At the climax of a chariot race we have been following in minute detail: “He kept moving. Crossed the line six laps later to win the first major race of his life. The first of what would be one thousand, six hundred and forty-five triumphs for the Blues. By the time the boy in that chariot retired eighteen years later….” ) Alixana refers to Time as “Lord of Emperors”-a notion for which Shelley’s “Ozymandias” provides the definitive statement, but
there is plenty of room in the house of literature for an epic elaboration like Kay’s on the vanity of empires.
In the same scene the Empress goes on to suggest: “Perhaps the chroniclers, the painters, sculptors, the historians, perhaps they are the real lords of emperors, of all of us” (437). Since the one historian in this novel is one of the most contemptible of all the characters, and a complete liar, Alixana’s point appears to be a rather grim one. But Kay’s other great theme besides the uncertainty of power is the glory of art. Even if the great mosaics crumble or don’t even get accomplished according to plan, someone-if only the artist imagining, or a viewer of the original sketches that but hint of the splendor of the whole-can be transported to a realm of seeing/experience that changes one’s whole perspective upon life. And there are arts considerably more ephemeral than glass embedded in plaster but no less capable of providing epiphany. Kay asks us to believe that Strumosus’ culinary arts have similar life-changing power; and in the realm of sports, a great strategy carried out with the greatest daring and grace provides the witness a moment of elation comparable to that of the greatest mosaic. (One of the highlights of the novel is Kay’s evocation of the crowd’s thrill at witnessing a chariot race “for the ages,” as we say.) Crispin even thinks of Valerius as an artist- “He [Crispin] was a maker of patterns himself, working in tesserae and light. The Emperor had worked with human souls and the world” (361)-though this reader finds that analogy more creepy than awe-inspiring. For the triumph of art over life one might think of Yeats’ vision of a world beyond the flesh in “Sailing to Byzantium”-or perhaps best of all, visit the church of St. Vitale in Ravenna, where mosaics of Kay’s partial models for his royal couple-Justinian and Theodora-still hold court.