Sunday, April 26, 2015

Guy Gavriel Kay's LORD OF EMPERORS

I must admit to having reserved a certain amount of judgment on just how much I liked Sailing to Sarantium, the first book of Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic diptych, until I saw how the story ended in this second volume, Lord of Emperors, because the first book didn't quite feel like it could stand on its own. The two really should just be published in an omnibus edition and be done with it, to make sure that nobody who was left a little meh at the end of the first book would miss out on the absolute joy to be had in the second.

As I observed before, the story told here is to a vast degree a slightly fantastical retelling of the reign of Justinian and Theodora of Byzantium, with some nifty artisanal viewpoint characters to give it life and color and emotional oomph.

But here in the second volume, the story at last decides to diverge from that most glorious of Byzantine periods, even as it brings more similarities to that story to the fore; thus a semi-barbarian queen, Gisel, who had a scene in the first book is more fully fleshed-out and revealed to be a fantasy (and younger and prettier and unattached) version of Amalasuntha of the Ostragoths, whose mistreatment at the hands of usurpers gave Justinian an excuse to reunite the Western and Eastern Roman empires.

Preparations for that great event, or rather, its fantasy equivalent, serve as the backdrop for this second volume of the diptych, for our hero of the first volume, Crispin the Rhodian mosaicist, brought tidings from Gisel to Valerius II (aka Justinian) and so can be said to have touched off Valerius' Great Excuse. Thus while Crispin busily works on decorating the great dome of the Sanctuary to Jad (aka the Hagia Sophia), plots unfold all over the place. But wait, there is more.

Lord of Emperors brings two new and important, and deeply interesting, characters into the mix, characters who do more, really, to drive the novel's plot than even Crispin or Valerius or Gisel. The first is a Bassanid (Sassanid) doctor, Rustem, unexpectedly come to prominence in his own country and then sent by his king to (cough) learn things in Sarantium; the second is Cleander, the hotheaded teenaged son of Sarantium's Master of the Senate, who makes all the messes that Rustem winds up having to clean up. Messes which wind up involving all of the characters, high and low, from the first novel, and keep things entertaining, but still wind up just being distractions to the MAJOR PLOT of the mighty that is the most dramatic, but also troublesome, element of the two novels.

I say troublesome because, just as the novels' story diverges dramatically from actual history and seems poised to be exploring some really tantalizing "what ifs" that I'm trying desperately not to spoil for you except to say that yes, they involve the novel's Belisarius counterpart, Leontes, quite intimately, which is part of what makes these what ifs so very tantalizing to contemplate, it then briskly winds down. The effect is kind of like if, say, Harry Turtledove had written his alternate U.S. Civil War stories but then just stopped right after the South won. Frustrating.

But forgiveable, here, only because everything else is so beautiful. Rustem is a lovely addition to the cast of characters and his story is as moving as Crispin's, as Valerius', as Alixiana's, as those of the chariot racing superstars and faction dancers and cooks (and cook's assistants) we already had met. Cleander spends a lot of the novel as the jerk you want to slap, but he's perhaps the one who undergoes the most character development; you don't exactly wind up cheering for him, but in the end you wind up pretty glad he's there.

As I've come to expect from Kay, there are some heartbreakingly emotional moments, some lovely prose, and, yes, some overemphasis of some things (like repeatedly pointing out how subtle everyone is). I really, really hope there's another volume of this some day, though. I want to know what happens now, since history doesn't tell me.

One other thing of note: beautifully, Kay also manages to leave us the idea that our man Crispin is the novel counterpart to the unknown artisan who made the wonderful Justinian and Theodora mosaics in the Basilica of San Vitale in Ravenna:

Which is a lovely grace note to a work of art that really didn't need any more, but that's why they're grace notes. I mean, look at those things. If these books don't tell their creator's story, they tell a story that might have been his. And they tell it beautifully.

*The historical detective work of looking for the historical figures who might have inspired the regal characters in these books is deeply unnecessary for enjoying them, but it's lots of fun if you're a certain kind of person.


  1. Have you tried Tigana and Lions of Al-Rassan (both stand-alone)? They's re my favorite by him.

  2. I've bought them both and will be gobbling them soon!


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