Sunday, April 5, 2015


There is a lot of attention to and respect for craft in Canadian fantasist Guy Gavriel Kay's fiction, and not just as a source of metaphor, though the tapestries of Fionavar and, here, the mosaics of the pseudo-Byzantine Sarantine empire, certainly serve as highly effective over-arching ones for the story structures he's created.

There were, though, no weavers in Fionavar. The tapestry was woven by a god, though not one of the gods who romped and fought and occasionally fornicated in the land -- they had personalities and desires and whims. The Weaver of Fionavar was much more impersonal, not a character.

But in Sailing to Sarantium, while yes, the overall story can be seen as a mosaic created by a divine mosaicist, there is also a real and earthly artisan who is a master of that art, and his story is the main one of this first novel in the Sarantine diptych.

Said artisan is one Crispin, who begins the novel far from the fabled city of Sarantium. Crispin is a Rhodian -- a citizen of this world's western Roman empire after it was sacked by this world's Visigoth analogues* -- and a mosaicist of considerable skill and dedication, if not yet reputation. The reputation is all his partner's, and it is his partner who is invite-commanded by the emperor to come to Sarantium and work on the novel's Hagia Sophia analogue. The partner,though, is old, and tired, and Crispin is merely middle-aged and embittered, so they decide it is he who will go "Sailing to Sarantium" in the novel's idiom for finally getting a shot at the big time, though because the imperial courier dawdled with the message it's too late in the year for safe sailing and so Crispin must travel overland.

So far this sounds about as fantastic as a Lars Brownworth podcast**, and I will just spill the non-fantastical beans here and say that, well, a Clark Ashton Smith story this is not. There is very little magic here, and not much in the way of mythical creatures either -- about as much as you'd see in, say, four or five chapters of A Song of Ice and Fire. But like those books, you're not going to be reading this for the dragons and centaurs and necromancers. You'll read it for the characters and the intricate and crazy court politics and for Crispin's story, the story of an artisan, the kind of guy we can never know any real story about (hence, I posit, the decision to make of this tale a fantasy instead of just a historical novel set in Byzantium. At least in part.) because artisans' names and biographical details did not make the history books until, overall, the Renaissance.

And also because, so far in my experience at least, when Kay writes fantasy, he's interested in exploring one of the more interesting possibilities that the fantasy genre offers: that of examining a world in which religion and its attendant rituals are not matters of mere faith/belief, as they are in our world, but matters of fact. Gods exist and prove their existence by directly interacting with humans (sometimes quite intimately). Ignoring them, to paraphrase Philip K. Dick, does not make them go away. And neglecting to propitiate them has real and tangible consequences that can't be argued about (or at least not much). We saw this in spades in Fionavar; here it's all a bit more subtle. There are pagans still in the Sarantine world, and we get at least one spectacular encounter with the reality of their pantheon and program during Crispin's journey to the great city from the sticks, but there is also a monotheism where, at least in this first novel, no proof is offered. It's all more like ours. It's all about belief.

Which lets Kay explore at one remove the schism between Western and Eastern Christianity that was just really developing in Byzantiume during Justinian's reign. The official religion of the Sarantine empire has sort-of-pagan trappings in that its single deity, Jad, is a sun god, but, just as Christianity was through its history, there's monotheism and there's monotheism. Pagan tugs at believers' heartstrings have some venerating a pantheon of martyrs almost as deeply as the god, and many arguing over whether the deity's incarnated earthly son was or was not as divine as the god itself.

All of this may turn off some readers, but those who have the patience for it are amply rewarded. The theological nitpicking deeply informs some of Crispin's very real and intense experiences, and his plans and visions for his coming triumph, the decoration of the pseudo-Hagia Sophia, which is to be more than a little bit of an assertion of doctrine given form in stone and mortar and prismatically lovely glass tesserae.

As I said, Kay loves exploring craft, and takes it as seriously as fodder for stories as he does his own practice. The care of Crispin for not merely design but construction and composition mirrors Kay's own attention to his craft. The result is as splendid as the dome of Hagia Sophia must have been in Justinian's day.

All this and some crazy action, too. Chariot races! Chariot crashes! Fighting! Sometimes in a bathhouse! And intrigue. So much intrigue. Crispin's arrival upsets many, many applecarts.

A caveat, though; as others have complained, Sailing to Sarantium ends feeling incomplete. Very little is resolved; most is saved for the second volume Lord of Emperors (which I'm already reading, of course). If you're going to read this, then, do yourself a favor and make sure you have the second book ready at hand.

Go, Blues!

*And let's just get this all out of the way and say that, fantasy trappings aside, this novel is basically set in Byzantium in the reign of Justinian and Theodora. All the events of that period are mirrored here, from the Nika riots and Theodora's famous quote about how imperial purple is a good color in which to be buried to the near-eternal conflict between the Blue and Green factions that are really only nominally about the two major colors striving for supremacy in the chariot racing marvel of the Hippodrome (as in the real Byzantium, the two factions also correspond to sides in a religious schism), to the need, after said riots, to rebuild the city and especially its primary religious edifice. It's all so on the nose, but as Byzantium is woefully under-represented in fiction, I happily allow it.

**If you've not listened to the marvelous Twelve Byzantine Rulers, go! Listen! It's glorious! I promise!


  1. One of Kay's less known series, but one of my favorites. I can still remember being blown away by a description of a horse race, Ben Hur style, (first or second volume?) and the impact of the scene when Crispin look up for the first time when visiting an unknown chapel (first or second volume?) and falls to the floor.

    1. Yes, both of those are in this volume. I loved those, too, along with his introduction to court, at which I chortled much !


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