Caius Crispus, known as Crispin, is a mosaicist, mourning his family after their deaths in a recent outbreak of plague. His friend and mentor, Martinian, has been summoned to the city of Sarantium to work on a project for Emperor Valerius. He does not want to go and sends Crispin in his place. But Crispin is an artist, a worker of stone and glass: he doesn’t understand how the mighty and powerful do things and his temper is too quick to ensure any kind of success for any period of time. Nevertheless, he agrees to replace Martinian and is soon on his way…
Guy Gavriel Kay first found success in the literary world as an assistant to Christopher Tolkien when he helped edit the stories in J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Silmarillion (1973). He then qualified and worked as a lawyer but found more success as a writer, first for the Canadian series Scales Of Justice, then as a novelist in his own right. His first series of novels, The Fionavar Tapestry (1984 – 86) was unashamedly influenced by Tolkien’s own work. He followed this up with two other fantasy novels that were set in worlds influenced by our own world’s history – Tigana (1990) and A Song For Arbonne (1992) – but all his novels since then have been set in the same world, one the author himself refers to as having taken a “quarter-turn to the fantastic.” Sailing To Sarantium (1998) and Lord Of Emperors (2000) take place in a time based on the historical Byzantium of the 6th Century, but it’s that world as informed by the poetry of W. B. Yeats (it sounds mad, but trust me, it works). All of Kay’s novels in this world are based around real historical events or places and, if you are so inclined, you can discover dozens of parallels to real places and events and people within the pages of these books.
Sailing To Sarantium spends a lot of time building this world up for the reader: Crispin doesn’t even reach Sarantium until well past the halfway mark but when he does, we begin to feel that we have some understanding of how things work here. We are introduced to the concept of magic in this world and are, depending on your mood when you read it, possibly horrified or pleased at the distinction between the magic of artifice and the magic of the natural world. Crispin is gifted a magical bird – and if you’ve read your Yeats, in particular “Sailing To Byzantium”, you will be beginning to grasp at some of the themes of this series. This bird communicates with him telepathically. However, their association is short-lived as Crispin encounters the natural, primal forces of magic in the form of the spirits of the untamed forests that exist alongside the towns and waystations he passes by.
It’s all a mystery to Crispin but it helps prepare him for his arrival in the city and his encounters with the figures that rule it. His wariness of the numinous figures that govern the supernatural world make him a lot more thoughtful in his approaches to other people. He thinks a lot harder about his responses to situations or what other people say and although it doesn’t stop him from shooting himself in the foot occasionally, it does make him appear more forthright than hotheaded (although, unlike a lot of other bad-tempered characters in fiction, Crispin frequently does lose his temper and almost never for plot or character reasons… unlike a lot of other bad-tempered characters in fiction). And he needs to appear wiser than he is because the rulers of the city and their attendant factions are incredibly competent and possess near omniscient wisdom about how the people around them work. I mean, this is de rigeur for a Kay novel: all his books are populated by incredibly clever people who never make a move that doesn’t have several layers of contingencies behind it. It would be easy to parody this or become sick of it, but Kay’s novels frequently feature environments in which only the keenest of minds can survive.
But Crispin is not an intriguer: he’s an artist. And art, in Kay’s novels, serves as a mirror to understanding what happens in the world. When these characters look through the lens of their art they frequently have insights that are denied ordinary people; and it is the skill of Kay’s writing that this doesn’t single them out as special, merely highly observant. Crispin was also different to a lot of characters that I was reading in Fantasy at the time as well: Kay routinely features different art forms in his books – previous books featured musicians, singers and poets – but this was the first in which he showed an artist in a field that many people might not have been especially familiar with. And, given how much of history during the time that this book is based on is expressed through pieces of glass and tile pressed onto plaster, it feels perfectly normal to have a mosaicist as a narrator. Because popular art is also used as a means of recording what goes on in the world or changing the way that what happens is observed.
But it isn’t just through recorded history that we see change happening. Something that Kay had done occasionally in previous books becomes a minor theme here, although it is expanded on in later novels: we frequently see events through the eyes of a character that will never appear again. Or we might get an event (as happens in Lord Of Emperors) that has no relevance to the current story but explains a lot of the history of earlier or later times, just to put the events we are reading about into some kind of context or perspective. It’s also a way of reminding us that we are but mortal and that this, too, shall pass.
As usual, I’m being vague about the characters and events of this novel. I really don’t want to spoil the story because I want you to seek out and read these books for yourself. Suffice it to say that this is a set of novels that you will read for the story but stay for the setting, characters and the writing.
Especially the writing. Because Mr Kay can certainly put a sentence together. He can also distill an abstract, complex thought to something wonderfully simple and astute. Fairly early on in the novel there’s a sentence in which Crispin is thinking. It begins:
“Back in the days when he had still enjoyed things…”
It comes across as mildly caustic wit, but it’s a pithy description that brutally cuts to the heart of Crispin’s character at that time: he has no joy left in him following the death of his family. He’s a man going through the motions of his life until Martinian sends him to Sarantium in his place.
We see that reawakening of Crispin in the latter half of Sailing, but we don’t really see him reinvigorated until Lord Of Emperors. Crispin has started working for Valerius and is fully engaged in creating a wondrous mosaic for the dome of his basilica. But even in this state he is unprepared for the changes that will come as a result of the intriguing that he tries hard not to be a part of…
I’ve often wondered if both novels started out as a single work that was cut in two for the sake of publication because they do tell a whole story between them. However, there are some characters that play a major part in the first novel that barely feature in the second and the mood has changed slightly because of the different storylines that are being told here. Sarantium also feels like a much more familiar place to us as a reader as well in the second book: there’s that passage of history again and a reminder that people come into our lives briefly and go out of them, usually on their way to another story that we know nothing about (Tilliticus Pronobius, the arrogant courier who delivers the emperor’s summons to Martinian and Crispin is a wonderful example of this and there are many equally intriguing stories scattered throughout Kay’s other novels as well).
We also find out more about the lives of the people who live in the city, specifically the chariot racers and the city-within-a-city of the hippodrome. There’s a couple of brilliant scenes that introduce the charioteers and their world in Sailing To Sarantium, but we become more familiar with them during Lord Of Emperors and discover just how important they are to the powers-that-be as a barometer to what the general populace is feeling.
Of course, part of the vividness of Crispin’s experience as a stranger in a strange land appealed to me on first reading because I was in similar circumstances at the time myself. I’ve spoken elsewhere about how my family and I found ourselves in a small town on the other side of Australia from where we started and Crispin’s dose culture shock in Sailing To Sarantium was a not dissimilar sensation to me at the time. By the time Lord Of Emperors was published, I was more familiar with my surroundings and was beginning to make my way in the morass of mores that you experience in a new setting: I was becoming aware of who I should be careful around and who I could trust. Obviously, there were no empires at stake here, but I was reassured by the similarities of our situations at the time, which is part of the joy of literature. Admittedly I hadn’t lost my family to plague, nor was I in danger of losing my life for heresy or for revealing state secrets, but I was struck by Crispin’s efforts at not ruining his opportunity by saying the first things that popped into his head or by not being up to speed with the latest developments in his field or even his workplace.
And, frankly, if you want your inner life chronicled, you could do a lot worse than have it done by Guy Kay.
You can find out more about Guy Gavriel Kay at https://brightweavings.com/