Sailing to Sarantium (1998) / Lord of Emperors (2000)
I’m not sure why I haven’t read more books by Guy Gavriel Kay. Back when I was a student, a friend lent me all three books of the Fionavar Tapestry, which I read and very much enjoyed, and later read and then often re-read Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan. But I hadn’t read anything else by him until I was inspired to buy Sailing to Sarantium for my Kindle, and then, after I’d read it, immediately to get the second of the two books, Lord of Emperors.
Kay generally writes historical fantasy, if one can call it that (the Fionavar Tapestry books are unusual amongst his works to be almost pure fantasy, though they are partly set in our world) – The Lions of Al-Rassan, for example, is set in a world like mediaeval Europe, more specifically like Moorish Spain, and the three religions of Al-Rassan – the Asharites, Jaddites and Kindath – are clear analogues of Muslims, Christians and Jews. The Sarantine Mosaic books are also set in that world, though a few hundred years earlier, in which the Asharite faith has not yet arisen. Sarantium is a clear analogue of Byzantium, and Kay takes as his inspiration the reign of Justinian and Theodora for his creation of Valerius, the workaholic emperor, and his common-born wife Alixana.
The complex and nuanced world of Sarantium is seen largely through the eyes of an artist, a Rhodian mosaicist named Gaius Crispinus – usually called Crispin. Valerius has had a great Sanctuary built, and an invitation – more of a command – has come to Varena to summon Crispin’s mentor and partner, Martinian, to come to Sarantium to work on the decoration of the building. However, Martinian persuades Crispin, who has recently lost his wife and two daughters to the plague, to go in his stead.
The first book is really concerned with Crispin’s journey to Sarantium and his eventual arrival there, and Kay introduces the reader in a leisurely fashion to a huge cast of characters: from the inn-servant girl Kasia whom Crispin saves from a ritual (but no less horrible) death on the Day of the Dead, to the young queen Gisel of the Antae in Varena; the alchemist Zoticus, with his birds who can talk mind to mind; the Emperor and Empress; the leader of the Senate; not to mention the charioteers and other workers of the Green and Blue factions at the Hippodrome. Kay gives a sense of the complexity of this world, with its allegiances and politics and religion, the – almost – absolute power of its rulers, and the beauty of its art, whether this is of cuisine or mosaic – or even of driving a chariot.
Once in Sarantium, Crispin is very soon embroiled in politics, despite himself, caught up in the shifting power relationships between the Emperor, Empress, the Daleinoi family (who have a vicious and long-standing grudge against Valerius) and the strategos of Sarantium’s armies, not to mention the possible threat to Sarantium from outside its borders in the shape of the Bassanid king and his armies to the east. Valerius is portrayed as the type of man who sees several steps ahead of him: like a great chess player he has several plans maturing – and yet he can be caught off-balance. The Hippodrome factions come into more prominence in this book, and one of the best things Kay does is to make the climactic chariot race (in which the badly injured Scortius and young Taras of the Blues combine to stunning effect) seem utterly thrilling.
Kay is good with description, evoking the dark terrors of the Aldwood with equal ease as the kitchens of the Blue faction, or the great Sanctuary of Artibasos. He makes you sympathise with the characters, even the treasonous ones: I particularly liked his depiction of Styliane Daleinos, which is both tender and unflinching, for example. Kay is particularly good at portraying women, allowing most of them in this story to be intelligent and witty as well as beautiful, even if the power they are allowed comes almost solely through the men with which they’re associated. Even Gisel, a queen in her own right, has to rely on Crispin, her fellow-countryman.
And Crispin himself is a great protagonist – an outsider who is unfamiliar with life outside Batiara, but whose artistry and skills allow him to mix with the greatest in Sarantium, thus allowing him to see more than most. He is seemingly an attractive man (perhaps unfeasibly so) to women, though he doesn’t initiate any of the encounters: in fact, he’s something of a passive character altogether: great and momentous events happen and he’s involved in many, but not through his own initiative or volition. I think this is realistic: he’s an artist and artisan, first and foremost, and unused to politics and foreign policy.
The delight in Kay’s writing comes in the sweep of scope and scale of his work, and the very human characters with which he peoples his works. These books feel very realistic, despite not being set in our world, but a version of it. Thus, although Valerius is based on Justinian and Alixana on Theodora, for example, their characters and what happens to them are quite different to Justinian and Theodora’s fates. There’s often brutality involved – the young faction partisans who drunkenly attack and kill the servant of a visiting Bassanid doctor, or the description of the death by Sarantine Fire of Styliane’s father at the beginning of the first book – but this isn’t overstated and again seems realistic given the era in which it’s set.
It should be noted that you can’t read Lord of Emperors without having read Sailing to Sarantium, and Sailing to Sarantium is obviously incomplete – they’re really two halves of one book. Taken together, they are superb novels: involving, exciting and moving.