Monday, 19 June 2017

Sailing to Sarantium

Recently I just polished off a pair of books I hadn't read since grade school. Those two lovely novels were a part of the Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay, and they were Sailing to Sarantium, and Lord of Emperors. Each is a tale of travel, self realization, passion, and ultimately, betrayal. Sarantium, is ultimately a city of wonders. Join me now as I describe this world and how it all ties together in one great journey.

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Like most of Kay's stories the tale is set in a world most patently not our own, but quite similar to it. It is, quite clearly, modeled on the Byzantine Empire in the time of Justinian. It is a time of great change, a time of religious schism, and a time of opportunity. We have the Emperor Valerius who is coming to replace the now deceased Emperor Apius, but there are many claimants to the throne.

Kay constructs a world quite similar to our own, but very different. You have the Sarntine Empire standing in for the Byzantines (and the city of Sarantium naturally) with a lineage traced back to Rhodias (Rome) which fell to invading tribes, now a small kingdom of Batiara (Ostrogoth Italy) and the Bassanid Empire (Persia) challenging the Sarantines in the East. This all under the light of the two moons in the sky.

The story though, diverges wildly from our own history, but in very clever and interesting ways, However, even though these momentous historic events comprise the overall narrative, it really focuses on the introspective nature of the individual characters who are walking through these periods in history. Some of them are great men, Patriarchs, emperors, and queens, others are simple people caught up in the times, artisans, doctors, and dancers. All of them walking through time with no conception of the period they are about to be swept up in.

The principle action revolves around Caius Crispin, an artisan from Batiara who is called upon to travel to Sarantium and construct the Emperor's new sanctuary. In this, he is caught up in the intrigue of the Batiaran court, and in the political dances of Sarantium itself. Now, he is just a poor artisan, and gets stuck between the competing factions. In both this world, and the half world. Armies and gods intrigue and struggle for dominance, and Crispin seems haplessly caught in between their desires.

As in most of Kay's work it is low fantasy, with some fantastic elements in the background, but they make only a small contribution to the story. However, they affect the characters perception of the world around them, and influence their thinking in subtle ways. This allows us a look at how those in a world before our own rationalist time would have thought and how they might have lived their lives. Wards against ghosts, curse tablets to spite their enemies, and spells to help with childbirth. It paints an evocative and compelling picture of a time so similar, and so different from our own.

These stories are similar though, because the people are still people. They have hopes, dreams, desires, and follies that define them. His characters need to grow and they have changes of heart. Kay writes compelling stories of individuals, and ties them into the greater story of the events unfolding quite well. It really feels like you are reading a historic chronicle of how the world worked.

Now if anything negative can be said about Kay, it is that his style of writing, while epic in scope, can miss the subtleties of story telling. There are little details which will escape readers as they go through this duology. Things that might be better explained and alluded to, but which seem to pop out of nowhere. For instance, in the second book Lord of Emperors, a major plot point is revealed only pages before a great game changing event comes to fruition. The grand scope can also confound in the way the story flows. Long internal monologues can be poignant at times, but at others they run too long.

However, the story in general flows well. The major and minor characters mesh together well, and their arcs all develop in a satisfying and interesting series of surprisingly interconnected events. We can see how these little things all tie together, and how these smaller events can ripple into big changes.

Each book is excellent, and each ties together so well. They, like most of Kay's works, are a joy to read. Kay has clearly done his work, whether it be for chariot racing, or the minutia of daily living in the Byzantine Empire. Crispin develops as a character and even though he is largely an observer one could argue, he contributes to events more than even he is prepared to admit. It is a fascinating tale, and one even casual lovers of history would do well to read.

In the end the Sarantine Mosaic is pieced together with exquisite detail, creating a masterpiece of art and storytelling, one to rival that which Crispin creates in story. I heartily recommend it, and encourage readers to go on their own journey to Sarantium.

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