Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Review of Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Save the detour of Ysabel, since publishing the three-book Fionavar Tapestry Guy Gavriel Kay has been pumping out historical fantasy as consistently as a machine. Covering the globe one romantifi-able culture after another, he has moved from Europe (Tigana, A Song for Arbonne, and The Lions of Al-Rassan) to Asia (Under Heaven and River of Stars).  Stuck in the middle of this oeuvre—literally on the Bosphorous between the two continents—is The Sarantine Mosaic.  Detailing the life and times of what we knew as Byzantium, and which later became Istanbul, Sailing to Sarantium is the first book of the two-volume series.  Style and methodology products of the same machine, the book is everything one expects from Kay.

Sailing to Sarantium is the story of Caius Crispin, a mosaicist living in the kingdom of Bataria.  Wife and daughters taken by a plague two years prior, he devotes his life to the only thing remaining important to him: his craft.  Alongside his once mentor, now partner Martinius, the two are decorating a local church at the story’s outset.  Their work interrupted, an Imperial courier arrives from the distant capital Sarantium to deliver a request: come to the holy city and have the honors of creating a moasic on the dome of the largest cathedral ever constructed.  Not feeling up to the task, Martinius appoints Crispin, who, still suffering from the heartbreak of losing his family, feels a trip to Sarantium would put some life back in his soul.  But before hitting the road for the long journey, Crispin is stopped by the Batarian queen and given a private commission—one that could get easily him killed should the secret be revealed.  The weight of the task not enough, a local alchemist, the mysterious Zoticus, also has work for Crispin to do in the holy city, and provides him a strange bird made of metal and leather.  But no matter how prepared the melancholy artisan may be for the challenges ahead, nothing can possibly ready him for the Sarantine court.  Every word possessing two edges, opening one’s mouth in front of the Emperor can be more dangerous than drawing sword.  Art may just have to come second.

Yeat’s poem “Sailing to Byzantium” a partial inspiration (more on the ‘partial’ later), Crispin, and as a result the reader, do look to the golden city as a sign of hope.  Kay setting a number of the scenes in Sarantium, of which the prologue is most significant, the mosaicist’s journey finds a trustworthy and treacherous cast of characters and strange events accumulating around him, including the Emperor Valerius, his beautiful wife Aliana, Leontes Strategos the General of Sarantium’s armies, his blue-eyed wife Stylianos, Crispin’s road guardian Vargos, the charioteer Scortius, an army captain, a slave woman, and a couple of others take significant stage time, each a fragment of the mosaic Kay himself creates.  (You knew such a line was coming eventually, so best to get it out of the way innocuously.)

Forever utilizing the patient voice of the storyteller, Kay unravels the story with ease, skipping ahead, back, and around as necessary to provide a variety of entry points into each scene, moment, and, if necessary, thought.  As is also Kay’s habit in the middle stage of his oeuvre, there are numerous throwaway lines to the effect “Later, he, too, would have cause to be privately grateful—amid chaos—that a wager had not taken place that day.” Thankfully, however, there are not as many A Song for Arbonne, and by the time Crispin arrives in Sarantium they all but dry up. 

But for as skilled as Kay’s storytelling is, Sailing to Sarantium never achieves the heights of Yeats’ poem (or Silverberg’s novella of the same name, for that matter).  Most of the characters come from epic fantasy stock (the rags to riches fairy tale girl, the bodyguard turned loyal through altruistic behavior, the ambitious beauty queen, the jealous shrew, the playboy athlete (or in this case, charioteer), the fat pervert, etc.  Moreover, the plot has more in common with period sagas than any story with loftier purpose.  Undoubtedly Kay will find a way to tie in Crispin’s skills as an artist into a moving scene in the second book Lord of Emperors, but by and large the novel never gets beyond well-written epic/historical fantasy.  Worse yet, the story, like several other historo-fantasies in Kay’s ouevre, very often treads the line of grimdark sensationalism (i.e. sex and violence), facets only redeemed by the quality of the prose. 

Compulsive reading thanks to Kay’s style and scene setting, the novel thus feels more a guilty pleasure, which, as such stories are, is best to have the second and cocnluding volume Lord of Emperors.  Sailing to Sarantium does not end on a cliffhanger, but there is need to continue reading if the elements positioned are to play out their drama.  Those who have read Kay’s other historical fantasies will know what they’re getting into, whereas if this is your first foray in Kay, I would recommend starting with one of the afore-mentioned stand-alone novels.  The quality is pretty similar across the board, it’s a length concern.

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