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Book cover art by Keith Birdsong (left); Bill Gregory (right).
Review © 2006 by Thomas M. Wagner.

I'm not certain why some folks don't care for Guy Gavriel Kay's approach to historical fantasy. I wasn't aware there was anything artistically illegitimate about setting events in vaguely disguised analogues of ancient lands, where little apart from name changes distinguish your world from the real article. If it were ever a conceit that didn't work, it would be apparent in the way any other story flaw in a book would be; a sudden moment of something clearly not fitting or belonging. A wrong note plinking in the middle of a piano solo. A too-cheesy special effect in a movie, pulling you out of your concentration and making you too aware of the man behind the curtain.

Kay constructs his cryptohistorical worlds with a jeweller's precision. Sarantium may be Byzantium, and Kabadh Baghdad, but there's more here than meets the eye. I see Kay as not only not wanting to resurrect yet again the same post-Tolkien clichés that have informed far too much epic fantasy in the last thirty years — and this is an area of some expertise for Kay, having co-edited The Silmarillion — but to imagine how magic might have worked in our world, shaping our history. With The Fionavar Tapestry his major exercise in from-the-ground-up fantasy worldcraft, Kay's more recent work has shown a desire to bring things closer to home, sacrificing none of the genre's flair for pageantry. The Sarantine Mosaic diptych features some of his best work as a writer in pursuit of this agenda.

Where Sailing to Sarantium focused on large part on a core group of characters led by the temperamental mosaicist Crispin, his friend Pardos, and the rescued slave girl Kasia, Lord of Emperors broadens the palette considerably. Supporting characters become major players, and the story evolves into the true ensemble piece Sailing hinted at in its later chapters. Kay depicts an empire at a time of transition, when momentous changes are in the air and anything can and probably will happen without warning. It's an exciting, tense time, and Kay masterfully conveys the palpable tension, the feeling there's something in the air, that comes to drive and eventually determine the fates of every character in the story.

In Lord of Emperors, everything hinges upon Emperor Valerius' decision to retake the former province of Batiara (analogous to Greece), in response to the overthrow of Queen Gisel, who has since fled to Sarantium to seek Valerius' aid — originally, unwisely, sending Crispin on ahead with an offer of marriage. If one character in this book can be said to take over the lead from Crispin, it is Rustem, a physician from the neighboring mideast kingdom of Bassania. Appointed to the court of Bassania's King of Kings for saving the monarch's life after an assassination attempt, Rustem knows full well that his subsequent assignment in Sarantium is to be a spy. He is not, however, prepared for what he is soon ordered to do, and must wrestle with his conscience and his loyalty. In Rustem, Kay gives the book a fairly appropriate reader surrogate. Like Rustem, we are all foreigners in Sarantium's crowded streets, its magnificent temples and spectacular theaters and colosseums. And like Rustem, we're smart enough to know that beneath all the pomp and circumstance, there's a rotten underbelly of betrayal, subterfuge, and plots within plots. Rustem himself is a man of principle, but no saint either; when his servant is killed by the wayward son of an influential senator, Rustem quickly forgives and forgets when he realizes how important a connection to the corridors of power said senator can be.

Sarantium comes to life in the way few locations in fantasy novels ever have. I know of fantasy writers whose work in world-building requires the clear-cutting of entire forests to get written down, but whose efforts, in the end, don't pay off with nearly the sense of place Kay absorbs you in here. As before, obvious fantasy elements like magic play a subdued but not unimportant role; you accept that it is something normal, if only selectively applied, in Kay's world, like political influence. Kay has particular fun with Sarantium's rival guilds, the Blues and Greens, who control the city's entertainments, and the way their politics are every bit as ruthless, and have as much influence on the city at large, as anything taking place in the Imperial palaces.

Another approach of Kay's I admire is the way he hints, tantalizingly, at the future consequences of actions that may seem trivial at the time. Similarly, I really liked the way he showed how, despite the rush to war and the looming specter of chaos lurking in the very near future, the citizens of Sarantium refuse to do anything other than go about their business. This is a city, Rustem notes, that reveres charioteers while ignoring the real problems plaguing its stability. (Sound like anyone we know?) One of the smartest choices in the whole story is the way the eve of chaos is marked by what will go down as one of the most memorable and important chariot races ever. It's a moment that marks both a key transition in the novel, and the history of the city it brings to life. And it's only one of many qualities that make The Sarantine Mosaic a necessary and deserving addition your reading list.