One of the very best examples of alternate history merged with fantasy.
Forming the first part of Guy Gavriel Kay’s duology The Sarantine Mosaic and inspired by ancient Byzantium, Sailing to Sarantium tells a magnificent, sweeping story of empire, conspiracies and journeys, both physical and spiritual. First published in 1998 it was followed by Lord of Emperors in 2000.
Rumoured to be responsible for the ascension of the previous Emperor, his uncle, amid fire and blood, Valerius the Trakesian has himself now risen to the Golden Throne of the vast empire ruled by the fabled city, Sarantium.
Valerius has a vision to match his ambition: a glittering dome that will proclaim his magnificence down through the ages. And so, in a ruined western city on the far distant edge of civilization, a not-so-humble artisan receives a call that will change his life forever.
Crispin is a mosaicist, a layer of bright tiles. Still grieving for the family he lost to the plague, he lives only for his arcane craft, and cares little for ambition, less for money, and for intrigue not at all. But an imperial summons to the most magnificent city in the world is a difficult call to resist.
In this world still half-wild and tangled with magic, no journey is simple; and a journey to Sarantium means a walk into destiny. Bearing with him a deadly secret, and a Queen's seductive promise; guarded only by his own wits and a bird soul talisman from an alchemist's treasury, Crispin sets out for the fabled city from which none return unaltered.
As previously mentioned, Kay's fictional Sarantium is inspired both by 6th century Byzantium and also by the portrayal of it within of the poems of W. B. Yeats.
I have long enjoyed Guy Gavriel Kay's work and I would place Sailing to Sarantium up there with Tigana and Under Heaven as the stories I have enjoyed the most, although of course I have enjoyed them all. It is simply beautifully written and from the very beginning I was completely invested in the story, the world and the characters. The author's love for words, and for telling stories, shines from every page - there is a precision, care and subtlety to each and every sentence.
Despite being the first book in a two book series the author does not find it necessary to utilise a cliff-hanger, or to leave many loose-ends, to tempt the reader into purchasing book two. Sailing to Sarantium can easily be treated as a stand-alone novel, such is the feeling of satisfaction upon completion as the final page turns. You could just leave the story there, should you be so inclined, but I'd be surprised if anyone did not wish to discover what further awaits Crispin in fabled Sarantium.
If you want to read one of the very best examples of alternate history merged with fantasy then this is the book for you. I cannot recommend Sailing to Sarantium highly enough.
Guy Gavriel Kay is among my favourite authors. He writes prose that is both beautiful and evocative, drawing you into his worlds and the lives of his characters in a way few others are able to achieve. Sailing to Sarantium has often been mentioned to me as among Kay’s finest work. For me, the pinnacle of Kay’s work remains Tigana, with a close second being The Lions of Al-Rassan. That being the case, Sarantium is still a fine example of Kay’s imaginative storytelling and has much to recommend it.
As always, Kay excels in crafting believable characters that grip you and keep you reading. Crispin is a skilled mosaicist who journeys - there is no actual sailing involved in the novel; the phrase “Sailing to Sarantium” is used throughout the book for someone taking a journey of discovery or having a liminal sort of experience - to Sarantium in order to construct the mosaic on the dome of Emperor Valerius II’s new cathedral to Jad. The early part of the novel reads a bit like a travelogue as Crispin encounters new people, places, and traditions during his journey to Sarantium itself. The sense of discovery really shines during this part of the book, and I think Kay does a wonderful job, particularly in terms of fleshing out Crispin’s character but also in introducing us to Kasia, a slave girl who is marked for a pagan sacrifice. Once Crispin meets up with Carullus, a tribune in the Imperial Army, we get to see some incredibly fun banter. I’m not sure I’ve seen the sort of banter Kay crafts in any of his other novels that I’ve read, and so this was really a treat. The conversations between Carullus and Crispin provide much needed levity once the plot moves to Sarantium, as Crispin ends up embroiled in a variety of plots and counterplots. These are only a few of a whole cast of characters who each feel real and complex. The characters aren’t the only thing that is complex about this novel. As always, there is a depth and beauty to the world Kay has crafted here that is truly astonishing. There are also a few fun moments dealing with chariot races between the Blues and the Greens that have an almost slice-of-life feel to them and just make Sarantium come alive and feel like it’s much more than a simple setting for a book.
Normally, at this point, I’d share some things that didn’t work as well for me in this novel. I’m not sure there is anything that is particularly weak, or that didn’t connect with me. Rather, because this is the first book in a duology, it lacked a solid ending. This is all the more noticeable since Kay’s endings normally leave me thinking and processing, wrestling with bittersweet elements, and immensely satisfied. The ending to Sarantium didn’t feel like that at all. There was no element of satisfaction in the ending, which is no doubt delayed until the ending of the sequel. Instead, it feels more like a pause. While some threads are tied up, the novel feels unfinished - not in quality - but in terms of the story. It’s quite possible that Kay’s excellence in other novels simply make this one suffer in comparison.
I look forward to reading the second book in the Sarantine Mosaic, and I’m hopeful that it will provide closure to the story and satisfaction for the reader in a way that the ending of Sailing to Sarantium just didn’t. Even so, this is a book that introduces us to some wonderful characters and deserves to be read for that reason alone.
Calvin Park, 8/10
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