The new emperor in Sarantium has a lot to atone for, so he’s building a grand chapel to his god and calling the most famous artisans in the surroundin..Show More »g regions to come work for him. Crispin, a mosaicist from a neighboring country, is one of these. Unhappy since his wife and children died, Crispin doesn’t think he has much to live for anymore, and he doesn’t want to go to Sarantium. But when his young queen, who sits her throne precariously, asks Crispin to carry a secret proposal to the already-married emperor of Sarantium, Crispin is duty-bound. Now he is “sailing to Sarantium,” which means that he’s leaving everything behind to start a promising new life. Along the way, he befriends an alchemist with strange powers, a young woman who’s about to be sacrificed to a god, and a foul-mouthed army officer who loves to watch the chariot races. When Crispin gets to Sarantium, he finds that decorating the biggest dome in the world isn’t the hardest part of his job — it’s navigating Sarantium court politics.
Sailing to Sarantium, the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s duology THE SARANTINE MOSAIC, is a historical fantasy loosely based on the Byzantine Empire. It’s a well-written slow-moving character-driven novel that’s full of the violence, sex, political intrigue, passion, and beauty we expect from Kay. If you’re a fan, you’re bound to enjoy this story. I particularly admired the focus on the art of mosaic — both the technique and the way Crispin and his fellow artisans love beauty and are attuned to the play of light, shadow, and color in their environment. I also loved the alchemist’s craft of creating birds of leather and metal and instilling them with personalities (there’s more to it, and it’s cool, but it’d be spoilery to explain further). This was not only a beautiful idea, but it added a nice touch of humor. I also loved the chariot races.
There are several likeable characters in Sailing to Sarantium but they spend more time thinking than doing and they’re really hard to believe in. Like most (maybe all) of Kay’s lead males, Crispin is brilliant, strong, brave, blunt and uncompromising (even when he knows he might be killed for it). The women are even more unbelievable. We’re told that they’re powerful, clever and dangerous, but mostly they go around looking beautiful and haughty, teasing men and speaking in arch tones, and using sex as a weapon. Almost every woman we meet in Sailing to Sarantium, other than Crispin’s mother, tries to seduce Crispin as soon as she meets him, though I’m not sure why.
The political intrigue is a bit over the top, too. As soon as Crispin arrives in Sarantium, he’s somehow unwittingly in the middle of all the maneuvering, with all the important people wanting to talk to him privately, seduce him, or murder him. We are repeatedly told how clever, subtle, and nuanced all these people are, but I’m not convinced. It’s not clear why they are scheming. Most of the interesting intrigue seems to have happened in the past and we never feel the immediate significance of it all, which just makes it feel overdramatized.
Overall, Sailing to Sarantium is a pleasant story if you’re willing to believe in the characters and the significance of the plot. This was hard for me, but I like Crispin and some of the other characters (e.g., the army officer, the famous chef and his apprentice, and the charioteer) and I’m interested in the mosaic and the birds, so I’m going to move on to the second SARANTINE MOSAIC novel, Lord of Emperors, and hope for a bigger pay-off. I’m listening to Berny Clark narrate Audible Frontier’s recent production of THE SARANTINE MOSAIC. He has an agreeable voice and his dialogue is truly excellent, but some of his narration is slow and lacks inflection. I actually didn’t mind this because I thought it served to tone down the drama, but readers who’ve enjoyed other audio productions of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, which have had more dynamic readers, may feel differently. I suggest listening to a sample. Originally posted at FanLit.
Originally posted at FanLit. Lord of Emperors is the second (and final) novel in Guy Gavriel Kay’s THE SARANTINE MOSAIC duology. The story, set in..Show More » a pseudo-Byzantine Empire, mostly centers on Crispin, a mosaicist from a neighboring kingdom who’s been commissioned to decorate the ceiling of a new chapel the emperor is building. Against his wishes, Crispin has been drawn into the Sarantine court’s political intrigue. In this second installment, the political turmoil finally comes to a head and Crispin’s life is, once again, drastically altered by events he can’t control. Not only are his and his friends’ lives in danger, but the changing political climate has major consequences for his art.
While reading Sailing to Sarantium, the first book in the THE SARANTINE MOSAIC, I had a hard time believing in the characters and the drama — I thought the plot lacked the world-shaking significance that the characters seemed to be overwhelmed by at every moment. I felt manipulated — like Kay was showing me murder, lust, adultery, shocking brutality, witty repartee, and titillating suggestions to make me feel like there was more going on than there really was. While I liked Kay’s characters, it felt like a big soap opera to me and I was impatient with the story.
The first part of Lord of Emperors is more of the slow drama and introspection that occurred in Sailing to Sarantium — every character analyzing what everyone else says, scrutinizing each gesture, contemplating every look, even reporting how they would think about this word or that gesture when they looked back on it sometime in the future. We’re reminded over and over how subtle and dangerous everybody is:
"The room seemed laden and layered with intricacies of past and present and what was to come. Nuances coiling and spreading like incense, subtle and insistent."
There are several sweet and touching scenes, but most of Lord of Emperors is more of the melodrama of Sailing to Sarantium. Finally, about 2/3 of the way through, there is a major upheaval followed by a slow unwinding of its tragic consequences. There are some real heartbreaking scenes in the last third of the novel, and the story ends on a beautifully bittersweet note. It just takes a really long time to get there.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s strength is making his characters come alive. Thus, when the big events finally occur, they really are painful and tragic and we worry about these people’s futures. I cared about Crispin, his queen, the charioteers, and the cook and his apprentice. However, I didn’t feel the need to be privy to every thought they had along the way — how many times do I need to be told that Crispin is thinking that only two women in the world wear a particular perfume? THE SARANTINE MOSAIC should have been trimmed down to just one book — I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
I also think I would have felt more appreciation for THE SARANTINE MOSAIC if I had read it earlier in my acquaintance with Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. His world and characters are so full of life, there’s so much drama and passion, and I admire the character development. At this point in my reading history, however, I can’t help but notice that Kay’s intrusive style, which I’ve always thought of as almost over-the-top, never changes. Now that I’ve read ten of his novels, what I once admired — the type of story, the deep characterization, that particular distinctive prose — starts to become tiresome. If you’re new to Kay, or if you can’t get enough of his style, you’ll have a better experience with THE SARANTINE MOSAIC than I did.
Again I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio production which was narrated by Berny Clark. Dialogue is his strength — I thought it was perfect. His narration is a little too slow (I had to speed him up) and I think some listeners will think it’s also a little bland, but I liked how his reading didn’t elevate Kay’s drama even further.