My write-up of the first of these two books, Sailing to Sarantium, has attracted more comments than any other book blog entry this year. I ended it by wishing that I had bought the sequel at the same time. I repeat that wish now. The two books are so closely intertwined that it's a shame to let the memory of one fade before you start the other. (Perhaps I have a bigger problem with this than some people, given that it was about a hundred books ago for me.) Anyway, like its predecessor, this book is simply a triumph.
But with a difference. Where Sailing to Sarantium stuck fairly closely to the history of our world, in particular the story of Justinian, Theodora, Belisarius and the Hagia Sophia, Lord of Emperors starts by nibbling away at the edges, and then abruptly and brutally swerves into its own timeline a bit over half way through. Suddenly, it all is up for grabs. Viewpoint characters die horribly. Any certainty we had is lost. I think that even if you don't know anything about Byzantium, it's a dramatic development on a par with George R.R. Martin's A Game of Thrones. But if you do know what is "supposed" do happen, the impact is incredible.
But the historical knowingness is not what makes this a great book. (And I add to that historical knowingness the accelerated appearance of Kay's versions of the rise of Islam and a specific spoilerish Christian controversy, brought into the novel for justifiable plot reasons respectively about a century and about two centuries too early.) The overall title of the series is The Sarantine Mosaic, and this is not only a reference to the grand work of art which Caius Crispius is brought to Sarantium to construct, but also surely a reference to the way the books are built up from little pieces - a progression of tight-third-person narratives (some crucial characters to the plot, some purely incidental) - within the overall structure of a framing plot, most of which in Lord of Emperors takes place in the course of two intricately and intimately described 24-hour periods, two days which illuminate the book's structure like the mosaics on either side of an orthodox church.
And apart from fantastic characters, desperate sex, Machiavellian politics, and an unforgettable chariot race, the book - indeed both books - are a deep reflection on the place of art in life, and how some are called to it, some respond to it, and some reject it. A couple of people, responding to my earlier review, said they felt the ending of Lord of Emperors was a bit of a let-down. I agree that the emotional place where the key characters end up has been signalled too far in advance to retain the dramatic momentum which Kay probably intended. But read it again, and look at what he is saying about art and the artist. And then look at the work that inspired him. I don't think you will remain unmoved.