Art for Fantasy's Sake
Guy Gavriel Kay's Lord of Emperors triumphantly concludes the massive, two-volume historical fantasy collectively entitled the Sarantine Mosaic. Sailing to Sarantium, the opening volume, appeared last year and introduced us to Kay's dazzling fictional analogue of the early Byzantine Empire under Justinian I, who is here reimagined as Valerius II, the ambitious, infinitely subtle emperor of Sarantium. It also introduced us to a large cast of characters from every level of Sarantine society. Chief among these is Caius Crispus -- usually called Crispin -- a master mosaicist from the western province of Batiara. Crispin, who has lost his wife and two daughters to an outbreak of plague, is an acerbic, unhappy man with nothing to lose and nothing much to live for, until he is summoned to Sarantium to play a part in one of the emperor's grand designs.
Valerius II has dedicated his reign to two particular goals. First, he plans to reunite the ancient, sundered Sarantine Empire by recapturing Batiara, which is currently ruled by the beleaguered young Queen Gisel. Second, he plans to dedicate a monumental new cathedral to the reigning deity of Sarantium, the sun god Jad. To Valerius, who has no children, these twin ambitions constitute his intended legacy to the future. This notion of legacies -- of monuments that endure beyond the span of the individual life -- is one of the novel's governing concerns and permeates the narrative on every level.
Crispin's role in all this is to design and construct a vast mosaic that will cover the dome of the newly completed cathedral. This dome -- an architectural wonder patterned after the dome of Hagia Sophia in Constantinople -- appears to Crispin as "a gift," a huge canvas capable of supporting the most profound artistic visions. He conceives a mosaic commensurate with the canvas he is offered, which will both memorialize his own beloved dead and reflect his sense of the teeming, tumultuous, god-haunted world around him. Crispin sees this proposed mosaic as his own legacy, and all he wants is the opportunity to work on it, to stand on the scaffold -- above the affairs of emperors and men -- and pursue his vision.
Of course, he cannot. The affairs of the world keep pulling him down from that scaffold and drawing him in. Lord of Emperors chronicles, in mesmerizing detail, the infinite complexity of that world, from the intrigues of Valerius's court to the more prosaic realities that govern the lives of the common people of Sarantium. The foremost of these is the obsessive factionalism that dominates Sarantine society, a factionalism whose focal point lies in the Hippodrome, site of the fanatically attended chariot races that Kay describes (both here and in Sailing to Sarantium) with such immediacy and power.
Kay uses Crispin's story to open up a window on a critical period in Sarantine history, a period marked by political upheaval, religious controversy, and the complex interplay of hidden personal agendas. Many of the players whose stories intersect with Crispin's are the dominant figures of the empire, the central forces behind large, sometimes terrible events. Among them are Valerius himself, the former peasant who has gained the Sarantine throne through a formidable combination of cunning, ruthlessness, and foresight; Alixana, the dancer who became an empress and who is, in every significant respect, her husband's equal; Gisel, the besieged queen who will do whatever is necessary to protect Batiara from Sarantine invasion; Leontes, the military leader whose religious views will have an enormous impact on Crispin's planned mosaic; and Styliane Daleina, whose family was sacrificed to Valerius's ambitions and who is animated almost totally by her hatred of the emperor.
At the same time, dozens of less exalted figures parade through these pages, among them legendary charioteers, dancers, and actresses, cooks, spies, and traitors, visiting physicians, children with second sight, scheming historians, soldiers, architects, artisans, and slaves. Kay moves his story gracefully along from character to character, viewpoint to viewpoint, place to place. During the course of its considerable length, the narrative encompasses not just Sarantium but the wider world beyond its borders. Within that wider world, foreign rulers devise schemes of their own, men and women offer their allegiance to very different gods, a "half world" filled with mysteries and magic occasionally asserts itself, and the Islamic threat that will eventually help to undermine Sarantium makes its first, tentative appearance.
Kay has structured his hugely accomplished narrative exactly like a mosaic, artfully deploying hundreds of varied pieces, creating, in the process, a coherent, brightly colored world in which history and imagination work hand-in-hand. Seen in its entirety, the Sarantine Mosaic has the feel of a genuine magnum opus. It is an intelligent, ultimately moving narrative in which color, sweep, and spectacle are firmly grounded in an understanding of the universal need to leave something of value -- art, empires, children -- behind. Like Sailing to Sarantium, Lord of Emperors is imaginative fiction at its finest, an intimate epic that further consolidates Kay's position as the finest living practitioner of historical fantasy.
Read an Excerpt
Amid the first hard winds of winter, the King of Kings of Bassania, Shirvan the Great, Brother to the Sun and Moons, Sword of Perun, Scourge of Black Azal, left his walled city of Kabadh and journeyed south and west with much of his court to examine the state of his fortifications in that part of the lands he ruled, to sacrifice at the ancient Holy Fire of the priestly caste, and to hunt lions in the desert. On the first morning of the first, hunt he was shot just below the collarbone.
The arrow lodged deep and no man there among the sands dared try to pull it out. The King of Kings was taken by litter to the nearby fortress of Kerakek. It was feared that he would die.
Hunting accidents were common. The Bassanid court had its share of those enthusiastic and erratic with their bows. This truth made the possibility of undetected assassination high. Shirvan would not be the first king to have been murdered in the tumult of a royal hunt.
As a precaution, Mazendar, who was vizier to Shirvan, ordered the king's three eldest sons, who had journeyed south with him to be placed under observation. A useful phrase masking the truth: they were detained under guard in Kerakek. At the same time the vizier sent riders back to Kabadh to order the similar detention of their mothers in the palace. Great Shirvan had ruled Bassania for twenty-seven years that winter. His eagle's gaze was clear, his plaited beard still black, no hint of grey age descending upon him. Impatience among grown sons was to be expected, as were lethal intrigues among the royal wives.
Ordinary men might look to find joy among their children, sustenance and comfort intheir households. The existence of the King of Kings was not as that of other mortals. His were the burdens of godhood and lordship--and Azal the Enemy was never far away and always at work.
In Kerakek, the three royal physicians who had made the journey south with the court were summoned to the room where men had laid the Great King down upon his bed. One by one each of them examined the wound and the arrow. They touched the skin around the wound, tried to wiggle the embedded shaft. They paled at what they found. The arrows used to hunt lions were the heaviest known. If the feathers were now to be broken off and the shaft pushed down through the chest and out the internal damage would be prodigious, deadly. And the arrow could not be pulled back, so deeply had it penetrated, so broad was the iron flange of the arrowhead. Whoever tried to pull it would rip through the king's flesh, tearing the mortal life from him with his blood.
Had any other patient been shown to them in this state, the physicians would all have spoken the words of formal withdrawal: With this affliction I will not contend. No blame for ensuing death could attach to them when they did so.
It was not, of course, permitted to say this when the afflicted person was the king.
With the Brother to the Sun and Moons the physicians were compelled to accept the duty of treatment, to do battle with whatever they found and set about healing the injury or illness if an accepted patient died, blame fell to the doctor's name, as was proper. In the case of an ordinary man or woman, fines were administered as compensation to the family.
Burning of the physicians alive on the Great King's funeral pyre could be anticipated in this case.
Those who were offered a medical position at the court, with the wealth and renown that came with it, knew this very well. Had the king died in the desert, his physicians--the three in this room and those who had remained in Kabadh--would have been numbered among the honoured mourners, of the priestly caste at his rites before the Holy Fire. Now it was otherwise.
There ensued a whispered colloquy among the doctors by the window. They had all been taught by their own masters--long ago, in each case--the importance of an unruffled mien in the presence of the patient. This calm demeanour was, in the current circumstances, imperfectly observed. When one's own life has embedded--like a bloodied arrow shaft in the flux of the moment, gravity and poise become difficult to attain.
One by one, in order of seniority, the three of them approached the man on the bed a second time. One by one they abased themselves, rose, touched the black arrow again, the king's wrist, his forehead, looked into his eyes, which were open and enraged. One by one, tremulously, they said, as they had to say, 'With this affliction I will contend.'
When the third physician had spoken these words, and then stepped back, uncertainly, there was a silence in the room, though ten men were gathered amid the lamps and the guttering flame of the fire. Outside, the wind had begun to blow.
In that stillness the deep voice of Shirvan himself was heard, low but distinct, godlike. The King of Kings said, 'They can do nothing. It is in their faces. Their mouths are dry as sand with fear, their thoughts are as blown sand. They have no idea what to do. Take the three of them away from us and kill them. They are unworthy. Do this. Find our son Dalmnazes and have him staked out in the desert to be devoured by beasts. His mother is to be given to the palace slaves in Kabadh for their pleasure.... Lord of Emperors. Copyright © by Guy Gavriel Kay. Reprinted by permission of HarperCollins Publishers, Inc. All rights reserved. Available now wherever books are sold.