Sailing to Sarantium, Guy Gavriel Kay
I first learned about Guy Gavriel Kay's books from the Dorothy Dunnett listservs I belong to. Mr. Kay is a fan and advocate of her books. In fact, one of his characters is considered an homage to Francis Crawford, the hero of her Lymond Chronicles. Many Dunnett readers know the blankness that comes with finishing the last of the Chronicles, and realizing that there is no more Lymond. Some go on, as I did, to look for Lymond-like characters in other authors' books, only to realize that there is no substitute for Lymond himself.
So I came to Mr. Kay's books with unrealistic expectations, and when I didn't find what I was looking for, I set them aside - for far too long. What finally convinced me to take a second look was (again) the Dunnett lists, where a subgroup has been discussing his novels for more than a year. I was also intrigued by the reviews that came up on some of my favorite blogs, such as Claire's and Helen's. All these together convinced me that it was past time to try Mr. Kay's books again. Unfortunately, they are not easy to find in bookstores, new or used. (At least with used-book stores, I tend to take that as a good sign, of people are holding on to their copies.) I found Sailing to Sarantium on the shelves at Barnes & Noble one day, and from the back cover and the first few pages, I decided this was one to try - and wow, was I right!
I saw this book described as "historical fantasy," a new term to me but one that fits perfectly. I am already a fan of the genre, from the books of Naomi Novik, Megan Whalen Turner, and Lois McMaster Bujold. The setting of this story particularly appealed to me, with Sarantium based on Byzantium, Constantinople. I know something of the history of the city, which added to the interest, and it is also a familiar setting from other books (including Dunnett's Pawn in Frankincense). In addition to the city itself, and the imperial politics playing out in it, another major element of the book is the mosaic work that brings one of the central characters, Caius Crispus, a master artisan, from the ruins of the Rhodian Empire in the west. He arrives in answer to a summons, to add his art to the great sanctuary of Holy Wisdom that the Emperor Valerius II is building. Mosaic art fascinates me, particularly the Roman and Byzantine work that has survived. A friend and I made a special pilgrimage in Italy to see the famous mosaics at Ravenna, on our history and art geeks tour of Europe after college.
I enjoyed the first few chapters of the book, which start with a "Prologue" in Sarantium, with the death of one emperor and the choosing of his successor. The city and the characters were so interesting and appealing that I didn't want to leave them behind, when the first chapter proper jumped ahead twelve years and traveled to Varena, a city in the ruins of the Rhodian Empire, where Caius Crispus is working with his partner Martinian. When the older man receives an imperial summons to Sarantium, he decides that Crispin should go in his place. After some persuasion, Crispin reluctantly agrees. Before he leaves, he visits a friend of Martinian's, an alchemist named Zoticus, who gives him advice about the journey and the city at its end, and two names that might prove helpful. He also gives Crispin a small mechanical bird, which speaks both aloud and in Crispin's mind. Zoticus tells him that the bird, which he claims is invested with a soul, will be of great help and comfort to him on his journey.
The bird, a small sparrow-like creature named Linon, is infuriated to be sent on this journey with such a companion. It is quick to complain and to insult, and for a few pages I thought that this might be too much for me. I kept picturing a Disney sidekick, like Zazu in The Lion King, and no matter how many times I told myself, "It's a magical element in a fantasy novel," it just felt wrong. As it turns out, I was wrong, so wrong. In the next couple of chapters, the part that Linon plays in the story, and what we learn of its creation, are so powerful and so moving that it left me stunned. In just a few pages I went from enjoying the book to loving it, in the way that brings out the book evangelist in me. This is my first "Oh, you have to read this" book of 2014.
I don't want to say much about the story itself, to avoid spoilers. There is a large cast of interesting and appealing characters, which Mr. Kay balances well throughout the story. It includes several strong women, and one who is stronger than she realizes; these women do not have a lot of options or power in their own right, like their historical counterparts. They also seem to lack female friends or support, which I hope they will find. Mr. Kay manages his complicated plot very effectively. At times he shows us events from two different characters' points of view, without it feeling repetitive. I found the imperial politics fascinating, as well as the religious controversy over whether the great god Jad had a son, Heladikos; whether that son was mortal or divine; and whether creating mosaics of Jad, let alone his Son, is sacrilege. The historical parallels add interest to the story, at least for me, but this isn't simply a re-telling of history in different clothes.
Before starting this book, I would advise that you have the sequel, Lord of Emperors, in hand. I didn't, and I am kicking myself that now I have to wait til April 1st and the end of the TBR challenge to find out what happens next. (Unless I can con - or convince - one of my book groups to read both - sadly unlikely.) I do have two of his other novels, eligible for the challenge, but of course what I really want is return to Sarantium. I see that Mr. Kay has written twelve novels, and I know I'll be looking for all of them.