Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Review of Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay

Sailing to Sarantium, the first book of the Sarantine Mosaic, ended on a subtle note—a strange portent indeed for a duology robed in the clothes of saga and high fantasy.  The pieces on the board suspiciously quiet, it remains for Lord of Emperors to see them open their attack through to the end game.  And indeed, Kay being Kay, the plot does unravel in dramatic fashion, the meaning of the title not what the reader may think.

Lord of Emperors opens with the introduction of an important new character: the Bassani doctor Rustem.  Coming from the Arabian-esque east, Rustem is called to serve a dangerous patient, and in the aftermath is asked to perform one more service for his king: go to Sarantium as a spy for the Bassani.  Death the door opening if he rejects the request, Rustem reluctantly says goodbye to his family, and soon enough, finds himself on the streets of the great city.  Crispin having begun work on the dome, another unlikely visitor finds themselves on Sarantium’s streets: his Queen Gisel.  War and rumors of war with Bataria swirling through the courts and the mighty hippodrome, the Emperor, his beautiful queen, the senators, the Blues, the Greens, and everyone in the city are caught up in the intrigue and violence which unleash themselves on the city one fateful day.  Life taking on a whole new meaning, Crispin’s project reaches its end, but not in the manner he expected.

Paying off in every way a reader might anticipate, the climax and conclusion of the Sarantine Mosaic will have the reader slowly yet compulsively turning pages.  Kay’s prose continues to soar, and the facades of emotion (at least veiled emotion) the characters are presented in manifests itself in a plot line worthy of the saga the duology is.  Assassinations, trysts, egos at large,weddings, deaths, revenge, chariot races (superbly done), and riots are the devices of engaging fantasy put to quality use like so few practitioners of the genre can.

Scrape away the lacquered veneer Kay lays on in several coats, however, and beneath lurks a grim dark fairy tale (aka contemporary epic fantasy).  The ending predictable and trite, the Machiavellian scheming, steamy late-night affairs, bloody deaths, and the FATE of the nation in balance are more the territory of George R.R. Martin and Paul Kearney.  Certainly it’s possible to locate themes in the work, but these do not seem to go beyond standard fantasy; honor, glory, legacy, loyalty, etc., etc., which, if you’ve read your share, can be tiresome.  Kay’s characters and plotting are richer than the overwhelming majority of epic fantasies out there, but that doesn’t prevent a spade from being a spade once you’ve shaken the spell of the prose.

In step with this point, the manner in which Kay presents women is rather embarrassing at times.  Intelligence, beauty, wit, a sense of fashion, etc., etc., are all fine virtues for a woman in a novel.  But when every woman in the novel possesses those virtues, not a plain-faced Sally or a wise elderly servant in the mix, the story distances itself from reality—a reality Kay appears so desperately to want to comment on—and becomes a fairy tale.  It’s difficult to take seriously presentation that strays so far from relevancy.  Moreover, it seems their bodies represent tools in Kay’s eyes. “It came to Crispin, watching the queen reach the marble floor to accept bows and her cloak, that he’d been offered intimacy by three women in this city, and each occasion had been an act of contrivance and dissembling.  Not one of them had touched him with any tenderness or care, or even a true desire.”  Forgive me, but sex equalling politics is the stuff of sensationalism, and does not lend itself to sophisticated literature.

In the end, Lord of Emperors is a worthy conclusion to Sailing toSarantium that plays out in strong, confident fashion.  Fully capitalizing on the potential for romanticizing (and simultaneously sensationalizing) of Roman rule on the Bosphorous, Kay’s storytelling, however, never seems able to escape itself.  For as much of a spell he casts over the reader with his superb pacing and flow, the storyline amounts to nothing more than a grimdark fairy tale.  That being said, Kay builds the city of Sarantium superbly in the mind’s eye.  The chariot race is a knockout.  Anyone looking for a realistically fictionalized version of Byzantium could not perhaps do better.  Fans of George R.R. Martin would thus take a strong liking to Kay’s style.  Both creating strong characters and allowing them to play out in a story hinging upon sex and violence, honor and glory, there’s little for fans of contemporary epic fantasy to disapprove of.

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