Book Review: The Sarantine Mosaic, by Guy Gavriel Kay

I have deviated from straightforward historical fiction, enjoying my sudden and passionate affair with historical fantasy. I am not exactly a stranger to this genre – my journey into historical fantasy novels has started with Ellen Kushner several years ago, and took me through the genteel domains of Susanna Clarke and the decadent realm of Jacqueline Carey. But the Sarantine Mosaic duology is unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Here’s what the official blurb says:

‘Rumored to be responsible for the ascension of the previous Emperor, his uncle,Read my review for one of the best historical fantasy novels of the last decades. amid fire and blood, Valerius the Trakesian has himself now risen to the Golden Throne of the vast empire ruled by the fabled city, Sarantium.

Valerius has a vision to match his ambition: a glittering dome that will proclaim his magnificence down through the ages. And so, in a ruined western city on the far distant edge of civilization, a not-so-humble artisan receives a call that will change his life forever.

Crispin is a mosaicist, a layer of bright tiles. Still grieving for the family he lost to the plague, he lives only for his arcane craft, and cares little for ambition, less for money, and for intrigue not at all. But an imperial summons to the most magnificent city in the world is a difficult call to resist.

In this world still half-wild and tangled with magic, no journey is simple; and a journey to Sarantium means a walk into destiny. Bearing with him a deadly secret, and a Queen’s seductive promise; guarded only by his own wits and a bird soul talisman from an alchemist’s treasury, Crispin sets out for the fabled city from which none return unaltered’.

First of all, I really admired the departure from the usual high fantasy theme of military glory. The protagonist is a gifted mosaicist; his craft is described lovingly and thoroughly. We can see the tesserae of different colours, set by his careful fingers so as to form together a torch of a falling god. We learn about the predecessors he admires, the old artworks he is awed by, the clerical regulations on religious images he has to contend with. For him, the great ambitions of great empires are, at best, a distant thing, and, at worst, a dangerous one. The imperial soldiers, when they do appear, are usually described with a wry detachment, while the golden, heroic Strategos of the Sarantine (Byzantine) army is a downright chilling figure.

On one hand, this is an easily recognizable historical landscape: Sarantium=Byzantium, Valerius and his queen=Justinian and Theodora, Varena=Ravenna (not that I object to that!). But, at the same time, the fantasy aspect of the novel lends the world new vividness and dynamism. The obscure rituals of Germanic tribes turn out to have some frightening material consequences. The mechanic birds, so similar to those intricate toys beloved by the Byzantine court, hide a dark secret of their creation. The Emperor’s ambitions in the West may yield a very different result from the one described in our history textbooks. And Yeats’ Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit,/Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame really do at midnight on the Emperor’s pavement flit in this world.

Although the major plot is ruled by the grand political designs, the intricate tapestry (intricate mosaics?) of the world also leave some room for smaller lives and dreams. Really, I could talk about this book for pages and pages – about the charioteers hailed with monuments, about silent litters moving through the streets at night, about the domes of heartbreaking beauty and the deeds of heartbreaking horror (the deeds that forever refuse to sleep placidly in the cold ground). But, really, I would rather simply implore you to read it.

Buy Sailing to Sarantium on Amazon

Buy Lord of Emperors on Amazon

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