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.
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.
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
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.
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.