Sailing to Sarantium + Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay Review

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.

Sailing to Sarantium

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; as readers we are swept along; we are eager to be gratified. We want our favourite characters to do this, do that, fall in love with another character and so on. We forget the hugeness of what a “culture” or a “society” is…we accept the microcosm. The structure 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.

guy gavriel kay

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 for me, 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 the bottom 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 has already created in other works. It is, I think, a gift of his vision – that he sees the interplay of choice and chance on many different planes and across a vastness of time… and allows a reader these glimpses too. We are made aware of a powerful desire familiar to all men to create a name, an artwork, an event for which we will be remember, and 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.

Reader, feminist, archivist, vegan & part time PhD student at Uni of York. Research associate at  on information rights for care leavers (she/her)