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May Books 18) Sailing to Sarantium

18) Sailing to Sarantium, by Guy Gavriel Kay

I've read two very bad novels about Justinian, Belisarius, and seventh-century Constantinople, one by Robert Graves and one by David Weber Eric Flint and David Drake. This is a damn good novel about them, one I had been meaning to get around to for ages. It is fortuitous (or maybe not completely) that I have been reading it so soon after my own visit to Istanbul two weeks ago; having just been there, I really found Kay's description of the city, the Hippodrome, and the grand Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom helping me make sense of what I saw and letting me imagine what the place would have been like 1400 years ago. Kay also brings to life the decaying civilisation of the former imperial territories to the west, and the lonely and dangerous land route to the capital. (As for the latter, I also have eerie memories of driving its modern equivalent, the former Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, between Zagreb and Belgrade in a thick winter fog, hoping to avoid the minefields.)

And yet of course this book isn't ostensibly about Justinian, or Belisarius, or Theodora, or the Byzantine Empire, but about the emperor Valerius, his general Leontes, his wife Alixana, and the empire of Sarantium. It is reasonable to ask if it is worth the hassle of Kay renaming a few personal and place names to tell his story. I think it is. For a start, it liberates him from any obligation to stick too closely to the historical events from which he has drawn his story, and in particular to be a bit more inventive about the religious beliefs and practices of his characters; and I suppose to write about faith and belief as universal human experiences, while separating them from what the reader may know or think about specific religions in our own world. And second, it allows him to inject a fantasy element or two, specifically an alchemist who can create telepathic metal birds, and an intervention from the Old Gods of the type favoured by Lois McMaster Bujold in her most recent novels.

Having raved about the scenery, I am now going to rave about the plot and characters. The core of the book is the story of Crispin the mosaicist's journey from the western city of Varena (ie Ravenna, Kay's least opaque renaming) to the capital to decorate the new Sanctuary, overcoming personal tragedy and deadly political conspiracy. But Kay builds up the mosaic of the narrative from lots of little glimpses of perspective as well, in a memorable sequence actually telling one part of the story backwards, each new viewpoint character taking us to an earlier stage of the action. All really well done, and yet the worldbuilding is even better than that.

Well, I really enjoyed this, as I have enjoyed all Kay's books (apart from his first, coauthored with a more famous writer). I wish I had bought the sequel at the same time as this.

Top UnSuggestion for this book: Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.


( 21 comments — Leave a comment )
May. 20th, 2007 10:53 am (UTC)
I would be interested in your take on the Graves - I'd describe it as deeply mediocre rather than actually bad. Certainly it is disappointing after the Claudius books.
May. 20th, 2007 11:36 am (UTC)
Ooooh, it was years ago that I read it - my memory is that I picked it up secondhand shortly after moving back to Belfast in 1991, and then just found my eyes glazing over when I tried to read it; too many proper names and battles, and unpleasant people. Struggled through to the end though. Far, far inferior to Claudius, and I think perhaps written by Graves as a contractual obligation.
May. 20th, 2007 11:34 am (UTC)
Sailing to Sarantium is one of my all-time favourite books - I like all of Kay's stuff but this one just blew me away.

I didn't think Lord of Emperors was as wonderful. Still well worth reading though.
May. 20th, 2007 01:13 pm (UTC)
Seconded. I think it was the ending that bugged me most.

But anyway, the mosaics in the Basilica di San Marco in Venice meant so much more to me thanks to those two books.
May. 20th, 2007 11:54 am (UTC)
I think you mean David Drake and Eric Flint, not David Weber.
May. 20th, 2007 12:02 pm (UTC)
Er, yeah.
May. 20th, 2007 12:24 pm (UTC)
I do find Kay's use of actual history and actual places somewhat odd. Not necessarily wrong, but very unusual. It can also cause a certain derailment - I was reading Tigana (I think it was), and just enjoying the scenery, when up popped Les Antiques. The description was close enough for me to know exactly the place he was describing, and yet it was in a supposedly fictional place.

I'd hit the same road bump one time previously, when reading D H Lawrence's Kangaroo. In it is a description of an encounter with a Tasmanian Tiger - but the description was word for word identical with an actual factual account I'd read previously, and suddenly I found my suspended belief rudely dropped.
May. 20th, 2007 12:28 pm (UTC)
When I bought SAILING, I did not realize it was the first of a duology. I was growing increasingly concerned and bewildered about how he was going to manage to wrap it all up when, about forty pages from the end, I realized abruptly that he *wasn't*, and this was part of a series. I was both incensed and deeply relieved. I think that that pair of books is my favorite of his after TIGANA, which is probably my favorite book of all time.
May. 20th, 2007 12:45 pm (UTC)
I liked both Tigana and The Lions of Al-Rassan a lot. Tigana perhaps is the better one, dealing with memory and magic very beautifully.
May. 20th, 2007 01:01 pm (UTC)
LIONS was perfect up until the last chapter, at which point it is my ever so humble opinion that Kay *completely* blew it. If the other man had died, much as I love TIGANA, I think LIONS would've toppled it from its place of pride, but I feel quite vehemently that the wrong man died. Furthermore, my recollection/perception is that Kay as the writer tried to hide which one had died, making me feel even more passionately that he'd screwed up, knew it, and was trying to pull the wool over the readers' eyes.

This is apparently a topic upon which death matches can be held. :)

Someday I've got to re-read A SONG FOR ARBONNE, which is a lot of peoples' favorite, but it really didn't do anything for me. I've got to see if it really doesn't work for me or if I was just in a bad headspace when I read it. I don't think, though, that I'll ever re-read LIONS, which is too bad, because man. So. Very. Close. To perfect.
(Deleted comment)
May. 20th, 2007 06:56 pm (UTC)
*laugh* I wasn't moved to wrist-slitting, so I guess it's good the one who died did... :)

You gotta admit, clearly GGK did something very, very right, if people are moved to death matches over the end of the book. :) Oh, to inspire such passion! :)
May. 20th, 2007 09:52 pm (UTC)
I seem to recall that that was about the third or fourth time that book he'd done the "let's pretend it's one person having dramatic thing X happening to them ONLY TO REVEAL it's someone else" and I recognised the style and was getting irritated with it.

Tigana isn't so polluted by that kind of thing and therefore wins. I haven't read Sarantium/Lord of Emperors yet though
May. 20th, 2007 12:47 pm (UTC)
I loved this book and its sequel, but the use of slightly-fictionalised real places did jar with me initially. I persevered, and gradually got used to it as the story and characters drew me in, but I probably wouldn't have bothered if the book hadn't been lent to me by a friend of excellent taste in fantasy fiction.
May. 20th, 2007 01:40 pm (UTC)
You mean sixth-century Constantinople, of course ...

I don't think Count Belisarius is that bad, and in its time it was just as influential as I, Claudius (you can see it in Asimov's Foundation stories, for instance). It's certainly trying to do something different to Claudius, to produce something that reads less like a novel and more like a mediaeval chronicle.

Sailing To Sarantium is one of the two books I gave away in my 2003 purge that I wish I hadn't (the other being John M. Ford's The Final Reflection).
May. 20th, 2007 03:14 pm (UTC)
Ah, I just carted both books over to the US with me, having had them on the shelf gathering dust for a couple of years now. So I'm pleased to see it was a good choice. They're up next, once I've finished The Children of Hurin. I've very much liked all of Kay's books.
May. 20th, 2007 10:30 pm (UTC)
The Children of Hurin was the grimmest thing I've read in a long while. Enjoy!

(It also does all the things that Tolkien was criticised for not doing in The Lord of the Rings. In some parallel universe...)
May. 20th, 2007 10:42 pm (UTC)
Just finished CoH and thought it was smashing. I'd love it if we got similar versions of Release from Bondage and The Fall of Gondolin, but it seems unlikely (if I understand correctly, the sources aren't in as good a shape as the Narn).
May. 20th, 2007 03:38 pm (UTC)
The sequel, Lord of Emperors, has a lovely description of a chariot race that none of the watchers will ever forget. Considering that none of us in the modern era has ever been a part of chariot racing mania, Kay does a really excellent job of making you feel as much as the chariot-crazy characters that you were in the presence of something special, at least special for a chariot-fancier.

I wish the script-writers for bad football or baseball films could do the same. Many of them seem to parasitise on the pre-existing feeling of sports fans to slide through a dull story, which, as I am not a sports fan, leaves me with nothing but the dull story to suffer through. Kay shows that it doesn't have to be like that.
May. 20th, 2007 05:00 pm (UTC)
There's a pretty good chariot-race scene in Sailing to Sarantium; is there another in the sequel as well?
May. 20th, 2007 05:47 pm (UTC)
To tell you the truth I had forgotten. Yes, that's competently enough done, but I think he outdid himself in the sequel.
May. 20th, 2007 06:58 pm (UTC)
I literally held my breath through the entire second chariot race, gasping for air when I needed it. It was magnificent. And I don't even visualize. :)
( 21 comments — Leave a comment )

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