Lord of Emperors, Guy Gavriel Kay
This is the sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, one of the best books I've read so far this year, which will certainly be on my "favorite books of 2014" list. I had to wait until the end of the TBR Triple Dog Dare to read this one, and when I finally started it, it was with some mixed feelings. In my experience, sequels don't always live up to the promise of the first book. But my main concern was because, in the meantime, I read another of Guy Gavriel Kay's books, and I just loathed it, almost as much as I loved Sailing to Sarantium. I hated the way that the female characters existed only in relation to the male characters, while the men became friends, enemies, partner, rivals, mentors, to each other, as well as to the women, in a rich web of relationships. I counted only two conversations between female characters in the entire book, and one of those was about the heroes, thus failing the Bechdel test. I was equally irritated in that book by the frequency with which Mr. Kay used false foreshadowing and misleading clues, to make us think for example that Character X had been killed, only to reveal five or ten pages later that it was really Character Y. About the third time that happened, I began to find it annoying, and my annoyance increased with each new occurrence, until I just started leafing ahead to find out what had really happened. I finished the book with gritted teeth and immediately gave my copy away.
Though I began this book with some trepidation, I was so happy to find it just as engrossing and entertaining as the first book - a worthy sequel. It was wonderful to meet the characters again, six months later, to catch up with them and then see where the new story took them. I admit, as I started to suspect where events were heading, I began to fear for two of my favorite characters. I skipped ahead at that point, because if Mr. Kay had killed them off, I think I might have given up on his books altogether (despite the two that are still on the TBR stacks). Fortunately, they both were spared. I also admit to my own inconsistency, though, because I don't quite believe in the happy endings that he gave them either.
But that is really my only quibble with the book. I had noted in Sailing to Sarantium that the women characters lacked female friendship or support, but here they have found that, in relationships that sometimes cross social lines but feel authentic. I think Mr. Kay is very good at creating strong female characters, intelligent, forceful, active women. I know he is a major fan of Dorothy Dunnett's books, so I don't think he would mind the comparison if I say they remind me of Philippa Somerville, Gelis van Borselen, and Groa - not to mention Margaret Lennox and Queen Carlotta.
I don't want to say too much about the plot, which as in the first book
concerns imperial politics, theology, liturgical art, and racing at the
Hippodrome. This book actually opens outside the Sarantine Empire, in the lands ruled by the King of Bassania, to the east and south of Sarantium (standing in for our world's Persian empire). From there a doctor named Rustem travels north to the great city, ostensibly both to study and to teach, but also with a mission from his king. Like Crispin, the master mosaicist of the first book, he soon makes new friends and new enemies, and in the process he becomes enmeshed in events whose effects will reach far beyond the city walls.
The subtitle of this book is "Book Two of the Sarantine Mosaic." I think of these books as two halves of a story, and I'm sure that's how I will re-read them in the years to come. At the same time, I can't help hoping that there are more pieces of the Mosaic to come.