1: Sailing to Sarantium
Review by Dena Taylor
The Edmonton Journal
Dark Moon Rising E-Zine
Review by Kate Nepveu
Barnes & Noble
New York Review of Science Fiction
Victoria Hoyle of Eve’s Alexandria
2: Lord of Emperors
Barnes & Noble
The Edmonton Journal
Emerald City Ezine
Review by Kate Nepveu
New York Review of Science Fiction
Victoria Hoyle of Eve’s Alexandria
Review by Jo Walton
Sailing to Sarantium
Review by Dena Taylor
This review is part of an upcoming book on GGK being published by NIMROD PRESS (New Lambton, NSW, Australia) in the BABEL HANDBOOKS series.
In Sailing to Sarantium, Volume One of The Sarantine Mosaic, Kay moves east in his secondary world and three hundred years back in time, to write “a fantasy upon themes of Byzantium.” He has found in Byzantium at its height — both the historical city and the one William Butler Yeats imagines in his poem “Sailing to Byzantium” — his vehicle for exploring the intricate relationship of art and myth to Empire and religion.
Kay’s use of the historical Byzantium allows him the same accomplished examination of politics and religion that characterizes his first set of historical fantasies. But what distinguishes Sarantium is what he has drawn from Yeats’s vision of Byzantium, his sense that the mystery of the cosmos and the power of imagination infuse the human world and raise it above the mundane but deadly realities of history.
In the larger scheme of the diptych that is The Sarantine mosaic, this volume focuses on the voyage, and the second focuses on politics [G. Kay, interview Sept.9/98]. The title refers to the fact that “To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life 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” . The voyage, thus, is not only physical but spiritual, an arrival at the edge of the cliff, poised like the Fool of Yeats’s tarot for flight or death.
The novel is grounded in a very Blakean tension between the forces of order and energy. On the one hand are the Empire and its omnipresent civil bureaucracy, and the repressive Patriarchy of Jad — the forces that restrict imagination and freedom. The forces of energy and imagination, always threatening to spin off into chaos, are represented by the half-million citizens of the city and beyond them of the fragmented Empire. Both are essential, not only for their intrinsic values but also to keep each other in check. And the bridge between them is shaped by art and myth.
Yeats speaks in his poem of the transformative nature of art, its ability to capture what endures beyond the transitory beauties of roses and birds. In the novel, at a mundane level, a golden rose captures the beauty and danger of the Empress Alixana; mechanical birds capture song for the amusement of emperors.But on a higher level, the mosaic Crispin designs captures the light of eternity and uses it to elevate the soul.
There are levels of magic in the novel as well, an element that was absent from Lions. For the citizenry, with their factions and colours, their ghosts, demons, and curse-tablets, magic is the way an intimate relationship and communication with the otherworld is conducted. They see no contradiction with their belief in Jad and his Holy Church, which tolerates what it knows it can’t change. Then there is the pagan ars magica of the alchemist Zoticus, who transmutes souls and contains them within bodies of wood. His is the same magic practised by Yeats (though never with such spectacular results) for the last forty-five years of his life. And here there is indeed conflict with the hierarchy of Jad — Zoticus’s arts have become another in an ever-expanding list of heresies.
As a first volume, Sailing to Sarantium establishes the parameters of major conflicts, particularly those pertaining to empire and religion. Here is Kay at his most historical, reshaping the reign of Justinian and Theodora to express his reflections on the development of Western culture. For Kay as for Yeats, Byzantium is the place where “imagination and history [are] at home together” (author’s preface). What redeems Empire and religion is their generous patronage of the arts — not just in finance but in spirit. They appreciate and foster beauty, excellence of creative endeavour, and the connection to the larger meanings of the cosmos. Art, myth, empire, and religion come together in the novel’s climactic scene, when Crispin’s drawings for the mosaic are unveiled. The Emperor and the Eastern Patriarch respond equally to the overwhelming power of the design, which captures both the light of eternity and — through Crispin’s inclusion of the figure of the zubir — the dark, disturbing forces of primal myth. Thus, as art and myth elevate the soul, empire and religion provide the framework for their expression. At the end of the novel, with Crispin’s designs accepted and his journey to Sarantium completed, the stage is set for the complexities of the second volume. If Kay proves true to form, readers can expect politics in all its forms — religious, sexual, artistic, and state — to shape deadly intrigues and powerful resolutions.
Review by Doug Barbour, for The Edmonton Journal
For some time now, Canada’s Guy Gavriel Kay has been recognized as one of the finest writers of high fantasy in the world. He first achieved fame with one of the finest post-Tolkien fantasy trilogies, The Fionavar Tapestry. Since then, careful readers of his work have watched him slowly build up a complex and complete world, with its two moons, one blue one white, and its vast and various history. As he has constructed not only another world but the historical circumstances of its various countries and peoples, in Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Lions of Al-Rassan, he has quietly but consistently moved his narratives ever further away from the easy magic and simple narratives of its power that sign the conventions of so many banal copy-cat fantasies today. Now, in Sailing to Sarantium, Book 1 of The Sarantine Mosaic, he has achieved one of the finest works of historical fantasy I have read in years.
Kay’s real magic lies in the way he has created analogues for countries and periods of our own history, yet managed to make these analogous worlds live in their own highly particular ways, under their own highly particular gods and historical inheritances. We see our own world as in a mirror in these narratives, but as Samuel R. Delany has one of the geniuses of his own unusual sword and sorcery tales point out, what we see in a mirror is always a distortion, not an exact replica of reality. To read these fictions only as if they were odd commentaries on our own histories would be to do them a great disservice. The countries, their histories, and the people who inherit and make them, achieve their own integrity and individuality in these finely wrought novels.
Certainly, in Sailing to Sarantium, Kay has created
a rich and highly engaging collection of characters, from the bottom of the Sarantine empire’s society to the very top, for the emperor and empress are among the major characters as well as active directors of the plot. The history Sailing to Sarantium carefully constructs has to do with the emperor’s decision to build the greatest of cathedrals to the god of his people, and of the broken Rhodian Empire, whose capital city in the far west was burned by pagans and is only a ruined citadel now. Although the empire now ruled from Sarantium, greatest and most holy of cities, is always in a state of crisis, and Valerius II must balance war, empire building, the feuds among the faithful and much else, he and his empress will build the Great Sanctuary at whatever cost to the empire and themselves.
To them they call the greatest artisans of the empire, one of whom, an older mosaicist, insists his younger colleague, Caius Crispus, accept the invitation. Crispin, as he is known to his friends, must travel from the west, through an often terrifying wilderness to Sarantium, where he may or may not be killed for his presumption. A man who has suffered profound personal loss, he discovers new friends and a reason to live en route. He also, most dangerously, meets, if ambiguously, what might be one of the older gods. But then, as so many figures remind us, the phrase “Sailing to Sarantium” has long meant changing one’s life, and the Rilkean overtones are deliberate here, I believe.
If many writers of high fantasy depend upon a banal and conventional representation of magic, Kay is after bigger game. His characters, with their complex personal histories and quirky intelligence, come face to face with something deeper and darker – mystery, the numinous, what overwhelms both sense and language, yet cries out to be known in the heart.
But, as I have suggested, he can also, again unlike too many fantasists, create characters whose rich inner lives give them an appeal that keeps a reader interested in every encounter they have with one another. Crispin is the central figure here, for he must deal with everyone from the emperor and empress and their courtiers down through soldiers and various craftsmen to ordinary people of the serving classes. Many of these people are women, and although women are generally represented as somewhat confined in such a culture, these too are represented as complex and evocative figures. Kay has become very adept at catching the nuances of his various characters in a pertinent phrase or description, but he also represents the ways many of them think as they act. This is narration of a high quality, indeed.
Indeed, in a novel whose central character is an artist, a maker of great mosaics, Kay has constructed his novel as a literary mosaic of great intricacy and delicacy, for all its adventures, its courtly intrigues, its confrontations with death and various powers, some of them beyond human understanding. There are some wonderful moments when a scene erupts in the reader’s mind as images planted hundreds of pages earlier come together to achieve a particular effect. And there are whole chapters which shift back and forth from night to day, from past to present, the intercutting full of sharp emotional contrasts fulfilling the core mosaic idea of sharply contrasted colours, as opposed to painterly blendings. Thus the novel itself exemplifies the mosaicist’s art, as carefully explained in Crispen’s meditations at different points throughout the narrative.
I have, really, only one complaint about Sailing to Sarantium, and that is that this wonderfully complex and engaging novel is only one half of the whole, and that we have to wait at least a year for the rest. If you like historical fantasy at all, you will find in Sailing to Sarantium a masterful example of the genre, one which perhaps redefines its possibilities. Most other such works pale in its light.
Review by Allie Sawyer, for the ezine Dark Moon Rising.
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.
Review by Kate Nepveu. Copyright May 12, 1999.
Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written. More of Kate’s reviews can be found at http://www.steelypips.org/elsewhere.html
“To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life 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.”
–Guy Gavriel Kay, Sailing to Sarantium
Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel, Sailing to Sarantium, is a fine example of the strengths of his writing: deft characterization, vivid worldbuilding, and a continuing tribute to civilization and culture. Sarantium, the first book of the Sarantine Mosaic diptych, is both more historical and more fantastic than Kay’s recent books. Set in an analogue Byzantium during the reign of Justinian I, many events described correspond closely enough to those of our world that even someone with encyclopedia-only knowledge of the period (such as myself) can easily identify the characters, places, and even the dates that the novel adapts. However, a throw-away line in the prologue is the first signal that this is not a “straight” historical:
Fotius the sandalmaker had wagered money he couldn’t afford to lose that the Blues’ principal charioteer would win the first three races today . . . . If he hadn’t seen a ghost on the roof of the colonnade across from his shop yesterday afternoon, Fotius would have felt entirely sure of the wager.
A “half-world” of supernatural beings is broadly acknowledged by the people of the novel. Though magic is not frequently seen, it is nevertheless important: an encounter with the half-world in the middle of the book will resonate backwards and forwards throughout the story. Both the mundane and the supernatural worlds are built carefully; chariot races at the Hippodrome and sacrifices to pagan gods are rendered equally vividly and precisely.
Against this fascinating world is set the story of Caius Crispus, a mosaicist summoned from Batiara to Sarantium to work on the rebuilding of the Great Sanctuary. Crispin is a contrary, irritable, passionate man who loved his work and his family greatly; after plague took his entire family, work was the only thing that engaged him even slightly. The core of the story is Crispin’s movement from “following [his family] into a living death” to accepting that he wants to live, work, and leave a mark on the world he is inextricably engaged with. Crispin is an interesting and sympathetic protagonist, and I found his inner and outer journeys compelling.
However, Crispin is not the sole focus of the book. To clumsily summarize an elegant technique, the book is, as the series title suggests, constructed as a mosaic: the story, particularly the major plot events, is shown through multiple points of view, where some dominate but are accented by many minor ones. Each of the characters contributes something distinctive to the whole, both in themselves and in their perceptions of events. This technique also rewards careful reading, as small details relayed in one area refer to and reflect larger ones in others. Mosaics and puzzles are the motif of the novel, and a reader has the double pleasure of solving puzzles posed to the characters and recognizing the details of the novel’s puzzle-like structure.
Two of the characters that are very good indeed at solving puzzles are Valerius and Alixana, Emperor and Empress of the Sarantine Empire. (Some people have suggested that they are too good to be believable; I found them credible, but can understand the concern.) Among the puzzles they are presented with is the question of Batiara, which Valerius strongly wants to reattach to the empire. This situation, the central question of the wider context of the book, appears to have diverged from the historical model by the end of the book, adding suspense to the plot: while it is easy to find out what happened to Italy under Justinian in our world, one cannot predict what might happen to Batiara under Valerius.
The contrasts between the wonders of Sarantium and the ruins of Batiara also illuminate a constant theme of Kay’s work, the beauty and transience of civilization. As an artist surrounded by military, political, and religious figures at Valerius’s Court, Crispin frequently launches into defenses of the worth and value of art–and has the tenuous basis on which art rests pointed out to him. The question of how one approaches life and art reflects and lends another dimension to the question of if and how Batiara will be rejoined to the Empire.
The pleasures of the book are neither solely intellectual nor solely historical, of course. Kay is generally known for characters and emotional conflicts that deeply affect the reader. Sarantium does not have the same emotional pyrotechnics  as other books; to put it more subjectively, while there are emotionally charged scenes, none of them made me cry. However, this should not be considered a criticism, since this book is setting the scene for the presumed dramas of the next. Despite this, it does not end on a cliffhanger, but, as noted above, at a momentary point of calm and purpose for Crispin; this allows the reader to feel that the novel ended at an appropriate, non-arbitrary place.
In summary, Sailing to Sarantium is a novel of many pleasures. I highly recommend it to all but the most wary of unfinished series; they have only to wait until next spring, when the second book is expected to be published.
 to borrow a phrase from Trent Goulding.
Art for Fantasy’s Sake
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.
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 Sarantium at 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 exactly Byzantium. 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.
Review by Thomas Wagner on his website SF Reviews.Net
Reprinted with kind permission.
In truest Kay fashion, the 40-page prologue to Sailingto Sarantium—this modern master’s first foray into series fictionsince The Fionavar Tapestry over a decade earlier—could standalone as a story in its own right. It is a shining example of how backstoryshould be handled; Kay builds the foundation of his new series throughtalespinning rather than dry exposition. It is one of the reasons whyKay is so much more satisfying than most of the wannabees who rule thebestseller lists in fantasy today. Most fantasy novelists cannot waitto impress you with the extent to which they have constructed their worlds(many times bringing years of RPG experience to bear, no doubt), and theyopen their novels (or more precisely, ten-book trilogies) with exhaustiveand exhausting reams and reams of prose detailing epic mythic historiesthat, when all is said and done, seem pretty darn conventional after all.Meanwhile, Kay gets down to business, never forgetting that solid dramagets the job done every time. That prologue takes place 12 years beforethe main storyline begins, but it could be a novella in its own right,and it slides you into Kay’s newest epic like a precisely cut piece ofmosaic tile. Bravo.
As he did in A Song for Arbonne and The Lionsof Al-Rassan, Kay creates a mythic world based very closely on actualhistory. Here, Byzantium is the inspiration, and just as the name of Kay’sfictional kingdom even sounds the same on your tongue, so too can yourecognize traces of other real locations—Rome, for instance—yetremain aware at all times you are squarely on Kay’s turf. Crispin is ayoung mosaic artisan living in a fictional analog of Italy. Embitteredby the death of his family from plague, he absorbs himself in his art.And then one day, an Imperial courier arrives with a summons that is actuallyintended for someone else. Yet Crispin is the one who finds himself onthe way to Sarantium, accompanied by a strangely sentient artificial birdgiven him by a local alchemist as a traveling companion, and carryinga startling secret message the young queen of his province wants delivereddirectly to the emperor.
The title of the novel can be taken literally, but Kayallows a metaphorical interpretation: it is a phrase used in Kay’s worldto indicate that a great change is about to be made in one’s life. Alongthe road, Crispin collects some traveling companions, notably a youngslave girl whom he rescues from her services at a roadside inn in a tremendouslyentertaining sequence that combines both humor and suspense with equalalacrity. The magical bird later figures in an eerie scene deep in thewoods that demonstrates Kay’s interesting approach to incorporating magicin his historical fantasies. Unlike many fantasists, Kay succeeds in makingmagic an organic part of his worlds; it is used in service of the story,rather than vice versa, and most interestingly, only sparingly. It’s asif magic in Kay’s worlds is as common as cell phones are in our world,and hardly a big deal.
Once in Sarantium, Crispin finds himself immediately immersedin the intrigues that envelop the court of the emperor Valerius. Crispinis decidedly out of his depth, as it seems absolutely everyone is a mastermanipulator with a hidden agenda (especially the women). Crispin keepshis cool by focusing on the job he is expected to do: create a
magnificentmosaic for the dome adorning a spectacular and controversial new templeValerius is determined to build, the greatest architectural feat of hisreign.
Kay’s mastery of his craft is as remarkable as ever; infact, perhaps the only real fault with Sailing to Sarantium isthat it isn’t even longer. Fans who enjoy palace intrigue will feel likekids in Willy Wonka’s candy store here, while those of you who like ahealthy dose of magic and action-adventure won’t be disappointed either.But in many ways, what I love about Kay’s novels are the subtle moments,the attention paid to minor characters, the abrupt jumps years into thefuture to show how a tiny action in the present can influence destiniesyears hence. Details such as this, just unconventional enough to fascinatewithout throwing the story off kilter, show the care and loving precisionwith which Kay constructs his worlds from the building blocks of actualhistory. Plus he’s just damn fun to read, a novelist—as the clichégoes—whom you just cannot put down. I am impatient for the sequel.That’s what every novelist and publisher wants to hear, I imagine, butit’s not a comment most of them earn. This man does!
Sailing to Sarantium
Review by Victoria Hoyle of Eve’s Alexandria
I have a set of bright memories associated with various of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels: Sitting, aged 13, grief-stricken and sobbing in a cold bath having finished “The Darkest Road”, the final weft in his Fionavar Tapestry; drooping in my early morning lectures five years later having welcomed in the dawn with the last page of his Lions of Al-Rassan; throwing myself down into my pillows and grinning, grinning, grinning at the promise of a second book in the Sarantine Mosaic duology. This last is hardly tinted with the same nostalgia, what with it only happening yesterday evening but you take my meaning.
The truth is (as if it isn’t already obvious): I hold that Guy Gavriel Kay is writing some of the most moving, challenging and well-crafted fantasy in the genre and that his work is always worthy of my highest praise. In short, I read his novels with a persistent awe and wonder that goes some way to explaining why I’ve decided to award Sailing to Sarantium a 9.5 and why this review will have a distinctly gushing tone. You’ll simply have to forgive me: I have been unashamedly seduced by prose.
Caius Crispus, known to his friends as Crispin, is a vitriolic and volatile man, as inventive in his curses as he is fierce in their delivery. Still, he is a husk of his former self – his beloved wife and daughters are barely two years in the ground, dead of a senseless plague. His only remaining satisfaction is in his art for he is also a master mosaicist, a manipulator of colour and light, living and working in the ruined, conquered land of Batiara under the tribal Antae. These may not be the days of Rhodias, fallen Empire of the West, but there are still contracts to be made, mosaic to be worked – the Antae are beginning to rebuild, commissioning faint shadows of a former, Rhodian glory.
Meanwhile, to the East, although enemies have long beset the Sarantine Empire, the Emperor Valerius II is determined to win Rhodias back from the barbarians who over-ran it. And also to build the greatest Sanctuary to Holy Jad ever created in Sarantium, the Eye of the World, City of Cities. His court is riddled with intrigue and enemies, riven by factions and watched over by the innumerable citizens of the greatest city in the known world. Into such a maelstrom he summons an unwilling Crispin, luring him away from Batiara, commissioning him to design the mosaic for the Great Santuary’s dome, and ultimately drawing him into a world of power, wealth, death, and ultimately, new life.
What to say? Here is flair and glamour, here is intricate plotting and politics, here is emotional depth and spiritual wrangling…everything any number of different fantasy readers could want. But what really sets “Sailing to Sarantium” apart from the crowd is Kay’s prose, which is engrossing and individualistic, mixing the weighty cadence of Tolkien with a contemporary wryness and an unusual lyricism. He is the master of a well-turned sentence. Admittedly, his style is very involved and requires a certain level of concentration from his reader; sentences are often convoluted, meanings often obscured. The phrasing is sometimes flavoured with an archaism that prompts a second glance and a slower read. But, nevertheless, it flows smoothly and bears the mark of careful revision and proof-reading. I often found myself pausing to read sections out loud, going back (especially to the end of the Prologue) and declaiming certain sonorous passages to myself. How to resist when presented with something like this:
“To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life 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.”
Which is really, in a sense, what this first half of the Mosaic is concerned with – Crispin’s winding journey to Sarantium, through pain, to a cusp of change and a choice: to live in the world or die to it? He is a fascinating protagonist, motivated by a perverseness of character and thrust into difficult, moving and often hilarious circumstances. The road he takes from Batiara to Sarantium is littered with danger; he faces ancient traditions, bestial powers and terrible sacrifice as well as the more mundane bed bugs and amorous tavern girls. Yet his world flowers into beauty even as it becomes more fraught with ambiguity and conflict. He gains companions and looses them, makes enemies and then befriends them…and finally arrives at the triple walls of Sarantium forever changed and changing.
But the book is much more than an excellent travel-fantasy or A to B narrative. It is also a piecing together (see the mosaic parallels?) of many lives in a riotous display of history at work. Like Kay’s other post-Tapestry work this is alternate history, marrying chronicle and record with high fantasy in an (wholly successful) attempt to recapture the danger and decadence of the Byzantine Empire at the height of its power. Batiara is recognisably Italy, Rhodias is Rome, Jad is the Christian God, Sarantium is Constantinople and the Great Sanctuary is undoubtedly the Hagia Sophia.
Yet it isn’t simple analogy. Kay is using these historical echoes in thematic strokes, shifting and manipulating events, leading us to consider not only the way history is written but also how collective and personal memory works and how individual lives/fragments come together to create patterns. Patterns of colour and light. Often a chapter will end on a puzzle, a mystery (Kay is good at this…forcing us to work for our answers), while the next opens from the point of view of some completely new and apparently inconsequential individual. Your first instinct is frustration: “Who is this person and why do I care about them? I want to be back with so-and-so!” Then Kay turns you around, he shows you how this person’s life, which seemed so insignificant, is really a piece in the mosaic and that each piece, each fragment, each butcher, baker and candlestick maker has his or her place in this novel. After all, a mosaic is a trick of the eye. It is really only pieces of glass arranged in a pattern that, when seen up close, looks like coloured crazy paving. Step back though and a picture appears, a significant picture. A novel can be the same. Characters, events, motives swirl together; asreaders we are swept along; we are eager to be gratified. We want our favourite characters to do this, do that, fall inlove with another character and so on. We forget the hugeness of what a “culture” or a “society” is…we accept the microcosm. The structu
re of “Sailing to Sarantium” reminded me to see the big thematic picture and to experience a vibrant world fully in all its variety.
And as always, beneath the riddle of the plot, is the universality of emotional and spiritual experience that Kay does so well; he has a gift for capturing both the multiplicity/difference and unity in human experience. He is the quintessential multi-cultural, liberalised fantasy author whether in the guise of Weaver (as in his early work) or as Mosaicist (in his most recent novels). I cried my way through the final pages and am confident that Sailing to Sarantium will count amongst my favourite fantasy novels for the decades to come.
Lord of Emperors
Art for Fantasy’s Sake
Review by Bill Sheehan for Barnes & Noble
Guy Gavriel Kay’s Lord of Emperors triumphantly concludes the massive, two-volume historical fantasy collectively entitled The Sarantine Mosaic. Sailing to Sarantium, the opening volume, appeared last year and introduced us to Kay’s dazzling fictional analogue of the early Byzantine Empire under Justinian I, who is here reimagined as Valerius II, the ambitious, infinitely subtle emperor of Sarantium. It also introduced us to a large cast of characters from every level of Sarantine society.
Chief among these is Caius Crispus — usually called Crispin — a master mosaicist from the western province of Batiara. Crispin, who has lost his wife and two daughters to an outbreak of plague, is an acerbic, unhappy man with nothing to lose and nothing much to live for, until he is summoned to Sarantium to play a part in one of the emperor’s grand designs.
Valerius II has dedicated his reign to two particular goals. First, he plans to reunite the ancient, sundered Sarantine Empire by recapturing Batiara, which is currently ruled by the beleaguered young Queen Gisel. Second, he plans to dedicate a monumental new cathedral to the reigning deity of Sarantium, the sun god Jad. To Valerius, who has no children, these twin ambitions constitute his intended legacy to the future. This notion of legacies — of monuments that endure beyond the span of the individual life — is one of the novel’s governing concerns and permeates the narrative on every level.
Crispin’s role in all this is to design and construct a vast mosaic that will cover the dome of the newly completed cathedral. This dome — an architectural wonder patterned after the dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople — appears to Crispin as “a gift,” a huge canvas capable of supporting the most profound artistic visions. He conceives a mosaic commensurate with the canvas he is offered, which will both memorialize his own beloved dead and reflect his sense of the teeming, tumultuous, god-haunted world around him. Crispin sees this proposed mosaic as his own legacy, and all he wants is the opportunity to work on it, to stand on the scaffold — above the affairs of emperors and men — and pursue his vision.
Of course, he cannot. The affairs of the world keep pulling him down from that scaffold and drawing him in. Lord of Emperors chronicles, in mesmerizing detail, the infinite complexity of that world, from the intrigues of Valerius’s court to the more prosaic realities that govern the lives of the common people of Sarantium. The foremost of these is the obsessive factionalism that dominates Sarantine society, a factionalism whose focal point lies in the Hippodrome, site of the fanatically attended chariot races that Kay describes (both here and in Sailing to Sarantium) with such immediacy and power.
Kay uses Crispin’s story to open up a window on a critical period in Sarantine history, a period marked by political upheaval, religious controversy, and the complex interplay of hidden personal agendas. Many of the players whose stories intersect with Crispin’s are the dominant figures of the empire, the central forces behind large, sometimes terrible events. Among them are Valerius himself, the former peasant who has gained the Sarantine throne through a formidable combination of cunning, ruthlessness, and foresight; Alixana, the dancer who became an empress and who is, in every significant respect, her husband’s equal; Gisel, the besieged queen who will do whatever is necessary to protect Batiara from Sarantine invasion; Leontes, the military leader whose religious views will have an enormous impact on Crispin’s planned mosaic; and Styliane Daleina, whose family was sacrificed to Valerius’s ambitions and who is animated almost totally by her hatred of the emperor.
At the same time, dozens of less exalted figures parade through these pages, among them legendary charioteers, dancers, and actresses, cooks, spies, and traitors, visiting physicians, children with second sight, scheming historians, soldiers, architects, artisans, and slaves. Kay moves his story gracefully along from character to character, viewpoint to viewpoint, place to place. During the course of its considerable length, the narrative encompasses not just Sarantium but the wider world beyond its borders. Within that wider world, foreign rulers devise schemes of their own, men and women offer their allegiance to very different gods, a “half world” filled with mysteries and magic occasionally asserts itself, and the Islamic threat that will eventually help to undermine Sarantium makes its first, tentative appearance.
Kay has structured his hugely accomplished narrative exactly like a mosaic, artfully deploying hundreds of varied pieces, creating, in the process, a coherent, brightly colored world in which history and imagination work hand-in-hand. Seen in its entirety, The Sarantine Mosaic has the feel of a genuine magnum opus. It is an intelligent, ultimately moving narrative in which color, sweep, and spectacle are firmly grounded in an understanding of the universal need to leave something of value — art, empires, children — behind. Like Sailing to Sarantium, Lord of Emperors is imaginative fiction at its finest, an intimate epic that further consolidates Kay’s position as the finest living practitioner of historical fantasy.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. His book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub, At The Foot of the Story Tree, is published by Subterranean Press (www.subterraneanpress.com).
New Standards of the Historical Fantasy Genre
Reviewed by Doug Barbour for The Edmonton Journal
Finally, two years after Sailing to Sarantium, Guy Gavriel Kay has given us the second panel, so to speak, of The Sarantine Mosaic, his truly astonishing historical fantasy of another world’s ancient Byzantium. Lord of Emperors expands upon the earlier novel, offering readers a complex and compelling vision of a city and an empire, in the midst of violent change. Indeed, although the important characters of the first volume continue their interwoven lives, and some highly intriguing new characters come to the city at the heart of the world, Sarantium itself is perhaps the central and most extraordinary character of The Sarantine Mosaic.
Sailing to Sarantium was in many ways a quest, the tale of how the fine young mosaicist, Caius Crispis (Crispin, to his friends), came from the far West of the empire to Sarantium to work on the ceiling of the great cathedral of Jad, the sun god. Lord of Emperors tells a much more complicated story of the political changes that occur during the year Crispin creates his great art. Where Crispin, mourning the death of his wife and children, was the central character in the first volume, here he is simply one of a huge cast, all of whom have important roles in the drama of private and public lives that Kay has so carefully crafted.
The Emperor and Empress, Valerius II and his ex-dancer wife, Alixana, are slowly constructing not just a great cathedral, but a rebuilt empire, and
it requires all their combined intelligence, guile, wit, and power just to begin such a project.
Like the various friends he has made at different levels of society, all of whom play their parts in the complex pattern that is The Sarantine Mosaic, Crispin is just one of the many pieces they attempt to manipulate to achieve what they believe is the greater good for all. But, just as the Ninth Driver, Death, can always disrupt the chariot races, so too there are many figures who can, and do, alter the plans of even the subtlest and most intelligent of rulers.
Lord of Emperors begins in the eastern desert country of Bassania, where Rustem, a village doctor who has travelled widely and learned much, saves the life of the King of Kings. As a result, his monarch sends him to Sarantium as a spy. Rustem is the most important, and the most intriguing, of the new characters in this novel, and Kay precisely catches his combination of humility before his work, arrogance about what he knows, and genuine curiosity about everything he encounters.
Once in Sarantium, a series of wonderfully believable coincidences brings Rustem into the lives of charioteers, senators, dancers, even the Empress. His abilities and his desire to do his job properly change many people’s lives. Although he and Crispin never really get to know each other, fate has chosen them both to play important roles in the great city.
But that is the way magic, if such it can be called, works in these novels — as something mysterious, something beyond most peoples’ understanding. Indeed, in a city where everyone knows about the strange fires that flicker overhead in the night, no one ever mentions them or the “half-world” they represent. Yet, like Jad and the very real powers attached to his worship, the half-world is part of the numinous, what overwhelms both sense and language, yet cries out to be known in the heart. Kay’s greatest achievement is to create characters whose rich inner lives give them an appeal that keeps a reader interested in every encounter. His women are wilful, strong, and always interesting, and this is especially true of the Empress and the young Queen of the Antae who swore Crispin to her cause.
Kay has become very adept at catching the nuances of his characters in a pertinent phrase or description, but he also represents the ways many of them think as they act, and he does this particularly well in scenes of high drama in the court. Such set-pieces, along with a description of a chariot race from both the charioteers’ and some connoisseurs’ points of view, are themselves worth the price of admission. Every aspect of Lord of Emperors reveals a master at work. As with Sailing to Sarantium, Kay has constructed Lord of Emperors as a literary mosaic of great intricacy and delicacy, for all its adventures, its courtly intrigues, its confrontations with death and various powers.
This second volume is in some ways more complicated and less specific, for it has to render highly public lives, even when it also reveals the deeply personal desires that underlie them. But like the first volume, it exemplifies the mosaicist’s art, as a delightfully metafictional touch in the epilogue makes clear.
Although it can stand on its own, Lord of Emperors is a very deliberate continuation of Sailing to Sarantium, and I would argue that the two volumes should be read together. Now complete, The Sarantine Mosaic takes its place as a major historical fantasy, one which redefines the possibilities of and sets new standards for the genre. Simply not to be missed.
Review by Wayne MacLaurin for SFsite.com
Guy Gavriel Kay is a true craftsman. His work is incredibly expansive and rich in detail. And, as is often the case with great artists, it takes Kay some considerable time to develop his masterpieces.
It’s been two years since Sailing to Sarantium appeared to rave reviews. In that first book of The Sarantine Mosaic, Kay began the tale of Crispin the mosaicist and Emperor Valerius. Lord of Emperors now concludes the story.
However, Guy Gavriel Kay is by no means satisfied continuing the tale only with the cast of characters introduced in the first volume. In fact, readers can be excused if they think, at first, that they may have picked up a different novel altogether. Lord of Emperors starts thousands of miles from Sarantium with an entirely new cast of characters, and it is some time before we rejoin the familiar tale begun in Sailing to Sarantium. As might be expected, Lord of Emperors teems with colourful plots and subplots. Kay serves up assassinations, mobs, romance, a climactic chariot race, fabulous dinners and a dizzying cast of characters. All of this is tied up with Crispin’s mosaic work on Emperor Valerius’ sanctuary, as the Emperor continues his efforts to leave his mark on history.
Lord of Emperors begins with the introduction of Rustem of Kerakek, a physician who saves the life of Bassania’s King of Kings. His reward is far different than he might have expected and Rustem soon finds himself “sailing to Sarantium.” From the very moment Rustem sets foot in the fabled city, he is caught up in that ingenious web of intrigue introduced in Sailing to Sarantium. The story advances at a dizzying pace with the various characters stepping onto and off of centre stage as Kay continues to lay the pieces that make up his own literary mosaic. The twists and turns are cunningly laid out and pretty much impossible to describe without giving away the story and the ending. Suffice it to say that Crispin does eventually complete his mosaic, if perhaps not the one the reader first expected.
Kay exhibits rare talent, both with realistic, three-dimensional characters and an incredibly complex setting. All of the many characters, from lowliest foot-soldier to high priest, from Alixana to Valerius, are rich and complex. Seldom does the reader encounter a character, however minor, that seems flat or misplaced. Similarly, Sarantium itself comes to life within the pages of the novel. The reader is drawn into the tale and lives the rivalry of the sport factions of the Greens and the Blues, listens in on the intrigues of the court and watches from the shadows as foul deeds are committed and heroes step forth.
Upon finishing Lord of Emperors, I could only sit back, catch my breath and try to imagine what wonders Guy Gavriel Kay will treat us to next time out….
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.
Review by Kate Nepveu.
Copyright July 31, 2000. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written. More of Kate’s reviews can be found at http://www.steelypips.org/elsewhere.html
“There were those in the Hippodrome that day for whom the racing held more importance than mighty events of war and succession and holy faith. It is always so. The apprentice, decades after, might recall an announcement of war as having taken place the day the chambermaid finally went up to the loft with him. The long-awaited birth of a healthy child will resonate more for parents than the report of an invading army on the border or the consecrating of a sanctuary. . . . The great events of an age appear, to those living through them, as backdrops only to the vastly more compelling dramas of their own lives, and how could it be otherwise?”
—Lord of Emperors, Guy Gavriel Kay
The second book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic diptych, Lord of Emperors, marvelously completes the story begun in Sailing to Sarantium. Indeed, it is only upon reading Lord of Emperors that it becomes clear that Sarantium was, in large part, simply setting the stage for the action to follow.
In Sarantium, the mosaicist Caius Crispus journeyed to Sarantium to assist in Valerius II’s rebuilding of the Great Sanctuary; the old Sanctuary burnt in the Victory Riots which nearly cost Valerius his throne. (Those familiar with the history of the Byzantine Empire will immediately recognize Valerius as an analogue of Justinian. A basic, encyclopedia-style overview of the history of our world during this time is recommended, though not required, and adds a richer texture to the book’s events.) During his journey and arrival at the Sarantine court, Crispin began to come to terms with his grief and anger over losing his family to plague. The tale of his journey crossed that of a number of different people; as the title of the series suggests, the story is structured as a mosaic and composed of a number of different narrators and narratives.
The degree of care behind the crafting of this mosaic is revealed in part by the two books’ relationship. For instance, just one of the viewpoint characters from Sarantium never re-appears in the series–because he is dead by the time the main story takes place. All of the rest re-appear later in the diptych, sometimes in a more prominent role than suggested by their first introduction.
This use of characters also complements the plot, which has much to do with how the past affects the present. Lord of Emperors opens with an Eastern doctor, Rustem of Kerakek, saving the life of Shirvan the Great, King of Kings of Bassania. Rustem is then sent to Sarantium to observe for his King, who has the balance of power between the Sarantine Empire and Bassania much in mind–particularly with regard to a possible reconquest of Batiara, the fallen birthplace of the Empire. The question of Batiara is tied up with its Queen, Gisel, fled from an assassination attempt to find herself a pawn at Valerius’s court; with Valerius’s coolly calculated passion to return the Empire to its days of unified glory; and with other characters’ old pains and obsessions–all
of which will collide to determine the course of history.
The events of the plot also flow from a major theme of the work, the need to balance the intellect and the emotions. The ability or failure to do this drives the book’s events and is reflected in the three central women of the plot, who are so brilliant they cast their own shadow-characters. (While the men of the book are also remarkable and reflect the struggle for balance, they do not drive the events of the book the same way as the women do.) Though the characters reflect themes, they are not mere allegorical stick-figures. Far from it, the major characters are fully three-dimensional, created with a perhaps unusual–but welcome–acknowledgment of the complexities and contradictions of human relationships. Like one character early on, who “wondered . . . how strange people were, that even the fairest day should not be without its sorrow,” the reader is likely to experience layers of contrasting emotions toward many of the characters and events of the book.
The theme of balancing intellect and emotions also is a comment on art, a constant presence in Kay’s books. I feel that the Sarantine Mosaic, as a work of art, achieves this balance very well, and in a way most suited to my personal taste out of all Kay’s novels. The book contains whirlwind sequences of action, heart-stopping moments of suspense and emotion, and the intellectual pleasure seeing it all–structure, plot, characters–fit together. The art within the book–Crispin’s mosaics, of course, but also the chariot races and even Strumosus’s food–also reflects the interaction between the twin impulses of reason and passion, intellect and emotion.
Art, of course, is not just a comment on or reflection of life, but also an attempt to preserve it. From the characters’ recognition of this, it is but a short step to the title, which does not, as one may think, refer to religion:
“And how many people would die in achieving all of this? Is it not vanity? To believe we can act like a god? We aren’t. Time claims all of us.”
“The Lord of Emperors? It does, but are there no ways to be remembered, doctor, to leave a mark, on stone, not on water? To have . . . been here?”
Art might prevent one’s name from being writ on water; however, the literal, medical attempts to preserve life are provided, of course, by Rustem. At the start of Lord of Emperors, I was unsure why another character was being introduced; however, a medical doctor balances the plot and themes nicely–someone to perform the medical techniques, someone to remind everyone what else the struggle for civilization rests upon (a question first raised in Sarantium), and someone whose culture is based on understanding and accepting the interplay of mind and soul. (Rustem is also, fortunately for the balance of intellect and emotion within the work, an interesting and enjoyable person to spend time with.)
As discussed above, the use of characters complements the plot’s key concern with the past’s effect on the present. The structure of both the book and of the diptych also reflect this. Lord of Emperors is divided internally into two books, each of which focus largely on a single day and night; one centers on a wedding, the other on a chariot race. (As might be inferred from the relatively short period of time covered, the pace of the book is much faster than Sarantium.) The two halves are tied together by the image of litters carried in the night, one dark, the other light, haunting the memories of those who see them, either in person or in the mind’s eye.
The overall structure of the Sarantine Mosaic in something like an elaborate spiral, with events reflecting prior events but not paralleling them, as time and people have progressed in the meantime. The best example of this is probably the closing scene of Lord of Emperors, which alone has echoes of at least three different spots in the two books (and which I at first thought out of place, but upon reflection found entirely fitting). This structure is ornamented by small touches which connect it with the larger world, such as the reminder of the significance of history which opens this review, echoed throughout the book:
Somewhere in the world, just then, a longed-for child was born and somewhere a labourer died, leaving a farm grievously undermanned with the spring fields still to be ploughed and the crops all to be planted. A calamity beyond words.
and what may be a small Tolkien homage in Fotius the sandalmaker’s reappearance towards the end of the book. One of these touches adds a degree of poignancy to the characters’ struggles to leave their mark: as Lord of Emperors takes place, a prosperous merchant has left his tent in the night and wandered into the desert, seeking answers; we know the resulting religion will greatly change Sarantium, as its analogue did Constantinople:
By the time the boy in the chariot retired eighteen years later only two names in the long history of the Sarantium Hippodrome would have won more races, and no one who followed him would do so. There would be three statues to [him] in the spina to be torn down with all the others, seven hundred years after, when the great changes came.
Time and history move on, and much is lost, but some things may be fortunate enough to survive. Crispin, Valerius, Alixana, Gisel and the rest are vivid enough that their lives will survive at least in my mind, and hopefully in the minds of many others, now and in years to come.
Review by Joe Milicia, for the New York Review of Science Fiction.
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.
Lord of Emperors
Review by Victoria Hoyle of Eve’s Alexandria
Let me begin candidly: Lord of Emperors only confirms the burgeoning suspicion I had at the end of Sailing to Sarantium. The Sarantine Mosaic is, for me, one of *the* superior works of prose, plot and imagination, not only in the fantasy genre, but in my reading experience in general. Highly subjective praise indeed you might object, but, from where I’m sitting, well deserved. As such I feel compelled to confess to the obvious: I’ve written a joyfully biased review (somewhat ironically given a recent discussion about a reviewer’s striving for objectivity over on the forums!). I *can* see things that might niggle a reader in Lord of Emperors, not least of which the tenor of the ending (many fans at the dedicated forums at www.brightweavings.com appear to have been disappointed by it). Kay’s style is often obtuse, his character’s motives obscured or difficult to evaluate… I even spotted what might be considered some loose ends in the plotting. One character in particular is left dangling, her potential apparently dissipating in the heat of that bittersweet ending. But what can I say? These difficulties, which always formed an essential part of Kay’s Mosaic forme, added rather than detracted from my reading experience. They heated and flavoured a heady mix of emotional currents and possibilities; characters’ open futures left a taste of the long-term, a necessary denial of complete closure. So bear these things in mind as you read on….
In this second part of the Mosaic we re-join Crispin, the Rhodian mosaicist, in Sarantium, surrounded by faces both familiar and new. Having finally reached his destination he wants nothing more than to engage in the challenges of the mosaic meant for the dome in the Great Sanctuary. He means to render meanings, both personal and universal, in colour and light, working through his grief and satiating a newfound yearning for a posterity.
But Sarantium, Eye of the World, City of Cities, is restless – a war is coming, an invasion of Crispin’s homeland – and his role in its future is not as he expected. His own Queen, Gisel of the Antae, who entrusted him with a secret message not so long ago, has now fled Batiara and taken refuge within the triple walls, has been made a pawn in Sarantine politics. The treacherous Dalenoi, rich, golden and ruined, seek retribution for a murder by fire plotted a decade before, while above them all the Emperior, Valerius II, is working on his own designs for a glorious posterity, sculpting the ebb and flow of power to his own purposes. And of course, there is still the Hippodrome, the centre of Sarantium’s factionalised world where the chariots and charioteers, the Blues and the Greens, continue to compete for glory on many fronts.
The novel begins, however, with a new character whose home lies far east of Sarantium in Bassania. Rustem of Kerakek, a desert physician, has recently found fortune in the world after saving the life of Shirvan, Bassania’s ruthless King of Kings. He, his first wife and son are to be honoured with elevation to the priestly caste, thus securing an undreamt of place in the order of the world…. just as soon, that is, as he has undertaken one final task in the service of his King. But, like Crispin, he is learning that life in the vicinity of powerful man cannot ensure safe fortune or future and that a balance between bringing healing and bringing death is hard to find. Especially, perhaps, if your newfound role is that of a spy in Sarantium…
Lord of Emperors does not have the exact same flavour as Sailing to Sarantium; instead it fulfils the previous novel’s promise of breadth and movement, thrusting us right to the heart of the actions of the great men and women of Kay’s world. While we are not allowed to forget the importance of small things established in the earlier novel, the resonances of power echo louder here and as war looms important moral choices dominate the preciseness of the prose. Whereas in “Sailing to Sarantium” the power was in emotional journeys, here the pace also gathers in some breathe-catching set pieces, not least amongst which is the chariot race. I’m not usually one for sporting heroics or fast paced chase scenes myself, but as always with Kay, it is not what he tells, but the way he tells it, that stays with you. He takes a scene’s natural momentum and fractures it into half a dozen POV fragments, each with its own emphasis and meaning. He shows you a fantasy history through many well-conceived individuals. And throughout he remains a master of images, emblazoning certain moments – a cloak discarded on a pebble beach, a leather bird in the wet grass, a woman stood at thebottom of a scaffold – that are returned to again and again, acting as indexes of the book’s emotional register.
There is also the small matter of history – the past and the future – that jostles for recognition here. Strands are thrown back and forward for us, gesturing towards the inexplicable mysteries of humanity’s socio-cultural career, our posterities and our futures. A glorious example: At some unmarked point in the book a man called Ashar ibn Ashar rises from a dream, leaves his tent, leaves his people and walks out into the desert and out of the novel. We don’t meet this man again. Except we do, or at least we become aware of his place in the grand scheme. But only in “The Lions of Al-Rassan”, written earlier but chronologically later, where the religion of the Asharites is an analogue for Islam. This grace-note, an almost playful nod to his readers, is only one of the many links made with “Lions” and the future tableau he hasalready created in other works. It is, I think, a gift of his vision – that he sees the interplay of choice and chanceon many different planes and across a vastness of time… and allows a reader these glimpses too. We are made aware of apowerful desire familiar to all men to create a name, an artwork, an event for which we will be remember, a
nd by which the future will judge us.
It is difficult to say, finally, what fuels my strong love for these books – it is many things and it is also just this one. It is an ability to key straight into some collective sense of history, time and experience that I carry around with me. As a historian I am constantly in pursuit of a vision of the past/s left to us by eyewitnesses, frustrated by the gaps and cracks in their patina. Kay gives these witnessed visions, these pasts (or variations on them at least) to us as a fantastical whole. It is the great gift of alternate history done well – that it can take a whisper of a reality, an almost-nothing of an experience, and play it out fully into a dance, a drama, a Tapestry, a Mosaic. It can work upon the numerous strands of our cultural inheritance and highlight both variety and oneness, chance and choice, death and life. When considered thus what, I feel compelled to ask, is the difference between great history and great fantasy if both open these same doors: the ones that show us what we are, what we were and what we can be?
Now go out and read it.
Mosaics and charioteers: Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic
Review by Jo Walton. This review originally appeared here at tor.com, along with reader comments, and is reproduced with permission.
Your experience of reading Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors is likely to be extremely different depending on how much you know about Justinian, Belisarius, and the history of sixth century Europe. There’s a way I never read these books for the first time-I was so familiar with the material Kay was using that it was like a retelling. If you’ve read more than one retelling of Homer, or of King Arthur, you know what I mean-it’s a case of interpretation, selection and shaping, rather than invention. There was never a time when I didn’t know the story to begin with, when I didn’t recognise who the characters were. And the characters are very close here-the map looks like a fuzzy Europe, and when I’m talking about the books and I haven’t just read them I’m inclined to forget Kay’s names and use their real names. Kay isn’t trying to hide the fact that Sarantium is Byzantium, Varena is Ravenna, Valerius is Justinian, Pertennius is Procopius, and Gisel is Amalasuntha. If you don’t know who those people are, your reading experience would be a discovery. If you do, then it contains a lot of recognition of how clever Kay is being. Yet Kay clearly expects a certain amount of real world context to intensify and contextualise the story he’s telling. You can enjoy the story without ever having heard of Amalasuntha or iconoclasm, but you’re expected to recognise Asher as Mohammed and appreciate the implications.
The question this demands is, if he’s going to keep it that close, why not write a historical novel? Well, the advantage of re-writing history as fantasy is that you can change the end. You don’t even have to change the end in order to get this advantage. Because it’s fantasy, because you have changed the names and reshuffled the deck, nobody knows what’s going to happen, no matter how familiar with the period they are. I realised this half way through The Lions of Al-Rassan with a shock of delight. Kay talks about respecting the historical characters by not writing about them directly, and the ability to make things clearer by purifying and condensing events and issues, and that’s also an advantage, but a historical novel is inevitably a tragedy, a historical fantasy is open.
I’ve worked out why everyone is so interested in Justinian and Belisarius. It’s because of Procopius, Justinian’s official historian. In addition to Procopius’s official history, in which he is deferential to hagiographic about the characters, he also wrote a secret history in which he vilifies them. The contrast is clearly irresistible. (Kay also couldn’t resist having Crispin punch Procopius/Pertennius in the nose, and I have to say I couldn’t have resisted it either.)
These are weird books. They’re written in an odd, distanced, elegaic style that I want to call veiled omniscient. The omniscient narrator knows what will happen, and what did happen, and what everyone thinks, but doesn’t like to approach too closely. He draws and lifts veils. He plays tricks where he described but doesn’t say who is who-does anybody like this? I hate it when Dorothy Dunnett does it, and I hate it here, too. If a blonde woman comes into the room, don’t leave me guessing who it is for two pages, this will not enhance my reading experience but rather the opposite. There’s a sense here that we’re always looking through the wrong end of the telescope, that these people are far away. Sometimes this makes for very beautiful writing, but there’s always a pulling back. There’s blood and sex and love and death, but they’re interpreted through the consciousness of artifice. It’s amazing that Kay makes this work at all, and it mostly does work. There are many points of view, but he never takes up a character just to throw them away. The ironic linking of everything together in omniscient connects and underlines and is sometimes incredibly beautiful.
What Kay does supremely well here is evoking the world, juggling the city and the empire, the neighbours, the gods, competing religions and heresies, chariot racing, factions, mosaics. The details are all real enough to bite, the varying quality of the glass tesserae, the mud, the fish sauces, the tool for drawing out arrows from flesh. The details are right for sixth century Byzantium, and even where he’s made them up they feel right.
Kay mediates the world through the chariot races and the making of mosaics, he often describes it in those terms. We get the heresy and the religion through the mosaics. We get life and control of the empire through the chariot racing-sometimes as a metaphor and sometimes for real. There’s a set piece race in each book, both different, both splendid. The pacing of events is unusual, it tends to concentrate on single days in which many things happen, with lots of flashbacks and remembering-there’s more use of the pluperfect tense in these than anything else I can think of. This single day thing is almost like Ulysses-there are a lot of characters, a lot of events, all compressed into a small moment of time. You’ll have a chariot race and see it from the point of view of a driver, someone in the crowd, an undercook for the Blue faction making soup.
The main character is Crispin the mosaicist. After a prologue set in Sarantium at the time of the accession of Valerius I, the arc of the book follows Crispin’s journey from Varena to Sarantium and back. We spend more time with Crispin than anyone else, and Crispin is more deeply embroiled in events than quite makes sense. This is fairly normal in stories with a protagonist, but odd in something so relentlessly omniscient. Crispin is so passionate about his mosaics that you can almost see them. And through the course of the books he makes an emotional journal come back from not caring about life.
There’s more magic than there was in The Lions of Al-Rassan, but not much for a fantasy novel. There’s an alchemist who embodies human souls in birds, and there’s a truly numinous encounter with a god. That’s amazing. Beyond that there are a few inexplicable flashes of flame in the streets and some true prophetic dreams. It’s not much magic, but it runs glinting through everything else like the silver threads in shot silk.
This is an incredible achievement, and it may be Kay’s greatest work.