Review by Joe Milicia for the New York Review of Science Fiction

Reprinted with kind permission.

It must be a special satisfaction for historians writing about Late Antiquity to be able to use the phrase “Byzantine intrigue” and mean it quite literally. A reviewer of Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantiumat least gets to dwell upon Sarantine intrigue-of which there is plenty in this first volume of a projected diptych. The protagonist is, to be sure, not a schemer but a mosaicist (the only alternative employment, one imagines, in bygone Byzantium), not exactly simple or humble but utterly dedicated to his art. All the same, Master Crispin becomes the center of a large number of intricate power plays that are only beginning to come clear by the end of the volume.

Kay, whose credentials in fantasy go back to his work editing The Silmarillion, has become a writer of what might be called alternate history fantasy. Having written novels of an alternate Italy, Provence, and Spain (the last of which, The Lions of Al-Rassan, is set in much the same story-world of Sarantium), he has now tackled the Eastern Roman Empire in its first heyday, around 530. It’s not exactlyByzantium. There are two moons in the sky (one white, one blue). The accompanying map looks like the Eastern Mediterranean halfway morphed into something else, with a differently shaped Italy and hardly a Greece at all. Some place-names are only barely changed-Moskav is far to the north of Sarantium, Soriyya a little south of where Syria should be-but the Greek-looking “Rhodias” is the counterpart to Rome, recently invaded not by Germanic tribes but by the Antae. A glance at an encyclopedia reveals that Kay’s Emperor Valerian II and Empress Alixana are close analogues of Justinian and Theodora: e.g., in both realms, the couple survive a city revolt thanks to the Empress’s determination, and the Emperor orders built the stupendous dome of Hagia Sophia, a.k.a. the Sanctuary of Jad’s Holy Wisdom.

One could ask, why not call everything and everyone by their “proper” names? The easy answer is that fantasy allows an author to embellish unchallenged the plain cloth of history and speculate on the motives of monarchs-to play fast and loose. More difficult to pin down is that curious, subtle difference in atmosphere in a fantasy realm even if the author strictly adheres to the mundane, eschewing the occult: an otherworld forest or village or vast walled city is a different kind of place from a reconstituted Hampton Court or Constantinople, with haunting possibilities lurking around corners, a somehow exhilarating sense of the unknown. (Lovers of genuine historical fiction perhaps feel more snug in the “real” world inhabiting their pages.) Obviously there is much to be theorized-no doubt much has been-on the political/cultural/psychological implications of the fantasist’s placing a veil of more than historical distance between our world and the novel’s. In any case, Kay does, on occasion, slip into supernatural fantasy: there is a mage with a menagerie of mechanical birds with living souls and telepathic voices, and also a manifestation, witnessed by Crispin and his friends, of a kind of Earth/Death God as a gigantic bison.

The latter is worshipped by the “pagans” of Kay’s world, in contrast to the dominant Jaddite religion of the Sarantine empire. Here we spot what at first appears to be an obvious allegory of Christianity in several respects: the figures of Jad the sun-god and his son Heladikos, a sacrifice for humankind; heretical arguments about the divinity of Heladikos; and debate in chapter after chapter over the representation of Divinity in art, recalling the Iconoclastic controversy of Justinian’s day. But the allegory breaks down rather quickly as one tries to work it out-and once again we are aware that we are reading what the author after all calls “a fantasy upon themes of Byzantium.” The differences begin with the fact that Jad the Father is the patriarch in Sarantine mosaics (with Heladikos in his falling chariot obliterated from the more orthodox sanctuaries), unlike the Son as patriarch in Byzantine ones. Heladikos is a curious combination of Phaethon and Prometheus-the Divine Charioteer who plunges to his death when trying to bring fire to humankind-and one of the major concerns of the novel is the obsession with chariot-racing in Sarantium, where the cult of Heladikos happens to be forbidden. Kay appears to have done a huge amount of homework on the running of chariot races in Byzantium, as well as on the art of mosaics (in a work of epic size there is plenty of room for satisfying detail) while modifying geography, history and religion to suit his storytelling desires.

We can hardly draw conclusions about a work whose first volume very nearly leaves its hero literally up in the air (he is a mosaicist, after all), while teasing the reader by withholding the name of the beautiful woman Crispin recognizes and climbs down his scaffolding to greet. But some observations about the author’s special skills are in order.

First, Kay likes exercising tricks of the narrator’s trade (as opposed, say, to the dramatist’s or screenwriter’s), like making us guess at who, among characters we know, has just burst in upon some other characters; or giving us elaborate foreshadowing with a sort of detached amusement. (Sample: “Had he arrived back at the inn after the racing, as he had intended…, Crispin would almost certainly have c
onducted himself differently in certain matters that followed. This, in turn, might have occasioned a significant change in various affairs, both personal and of much wider import.” And so on for another whole paragraph.)

Second-a requirement in a book full of aristocratic schemers-he is capable of giving his sophisticates the inevitable arch dialogue and arched eyebrows without turning them into caricatures; rather they seem genuinely intelligent, amusing, dangerous and unpredictable. More important yet, while structuring his book upon the conventional figure of the plucky hero who unexpectedly finds himself on a perilous journey from the remote provinces to the fabulous and sinister capital, Kay manages to create not only an interesting protagonist-a sort of cross between Frodo and Michelangelo, if that can be imagined-but a gallery of other types to take center stage from time to time in a work of epic scope.

Along the way there as many dramatic surprises and moving moments as such a work demands, not to mention all the data we might possibly want on tesserae and hippodromes. Evidently Kay has in mind mosaics as an analogy for how a novel might be constructed in discrete units with the “big picture” visible only as one steps back quite a ways-though the chapters from the viewpoints of relatively peripheral characters might be more like building blocks than pieces of glass.

Kay is also extremely skilled, especially in the later chapters (the long Prologue is a bit plodding), in building a lengthy scene to a dramatic climax. Here the most brilliant episode is surely that of Crispin’s introduction to the Emperor’s court, where he must hold his own among royalty who are not at all too serenely dignified to titter at a country bumpkin or send an insolent rube to the chopping block. In its constant narrative trumps, revelations of character (including Crispin’s finding out things about himself as he near-recklessly speaks) and playing of dangerous games, the scene is close to breathtaking. Also brilliant is Kay’s virtuoso handling of structure in the chapter that follows, in which we meet the soup apprentice of a master chef, Crispin is attacked, the celebrated charioteer Scortius is involved in the melee, fascinating conversations of Crispin with the Emperor and Empress transpire, we are taken inside the Sanctuary for the first time, and Crispin is attacked yet again, but all with an intricately rearranged chronology and a wittily drawn-out suspense. Here truly we must step back, or farther ahead, to see what is really going on.

More conventional, in the narrative thus far, is the abundance of beautiful women who appear to be, at the least, potential sexual partners for our hero. The situation would be farcical in other hands, but Kay has provided Crispin with a recently dead wife and children to motivate his disinterest in the flesh-not to mention his need for some good or bad woman to rekindle that interest. The leading contenders (and here the reviewer must resist pulp-fiction taglines for each) include Gisel, Queen of the Antae, precariously holding the throne against vying local factions; Kasia the slave girl, rescued from human sacrifice; the Empress herself, once an ambitious “dancing girl” and now more formidable and alluring than ever (but quite seriously, an excellently drawn character); Styliane Daleina, haughty wife of the chief military officer of the realm and embittered survivor of a defeated clan; and Shirin, daughter of the mage with the talking birds and courtesan of the Greens, one of the chariot-racing factions. Kasia is, of course, the only gentle and sincere one of the lot, but whether that gets her Crispin for keeps is so far left in the dark.

The title for Volume 1 boldly appropriates the name of W. B. Yeats’s famous poem, one of a pair on Byzantium which, along with the Irish poet’s occult musings in prose, Kay salutes in his preface, for inspiring him in general and giving him “underlying motifs” for his novel. Though the world of Sarantium is not so phantasmagorical as that of Yeats’s “Byzantium,” and is much more rooted in earth and history than the visionary “Sailing to Byzantium,” we do get mechanical singing birds “set upon a golden bough” in the Emperor’s palace, and more significantly the wizard’s leather-and-metal, but living birds. The latter are among the novel’s most haunting creations, funny and touching. How significant they, and Yeats, are in the mosaic of the whole remains to be seen.

Joe Milicia lives and schemes in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.

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