The Barnes & Noble Review
Art for Fantasy's Sake
Guy Gavriel Kay's career in fantasy began with his editorial contributions to J.R.R. Tolkien's posthumous epic, The Silmarillion. Since then, he has established himself as a remarkable and original fantasist in his own right, having published more than half a dozen large, ambitious novels in the last 15 years. His latest, Sailing to Sarantium, is the first in a projected two-volume sequence called the Sarantine Mosaic, an intricate, richly imagined work that reinforces Kay's position as one of the finest contemporary practitioners of classical high fantasy.
In the manner of his previous two novels, A Song for Arbonne and The Lions of AL-Rassad, Kay has once again used an actual historical setting the early Byzantine Empire under Justinian I as the basis for his fiction. In his new novel, Byzantium is transformed into Sarantium, and Justinian is reimagined as Valerius II, ruler of a beleaguered empire surrounded on all sides by pagan and barbarian hordes, and threatened from within by a complex series of political divisions, religious controversies, and palace intrigues. Valerius a shrewd, resourceful ruler is driven by two equally grandiose ambitions: to restore the remote western province of Batiara to Sarantine dominion and to build a monumental new cathedral in honor of the reigning deity of Sarantium, the sun god known as Jad. These twin ambitions stand at the novel's heart, and they are the motivating forces behind all its most significant events.
As Sailing toSarantiumopens, a master mosaicist and Batiaran citizen named Caius Crispus commonly known as Crispin accepts an imperial invitation to travel to Sarantium to help create a mosaic for the newly constructed Jaddite cathedral. The invitation is actually intended for Crispin's partner, Martinien, who is old, settled, and unwilling to leave his home. Crispin, who has recently lost his wife and two daughters to an outbreak of plague, travels to Sarantium in Martinien's place, hoping to find, through the practice of his craft, a renewal of his lost sense of purpose. To complicate matters further, he is also charged by Gisel, the besieged young queen of Batiara with delivering a dangerous and desperate message intended for Valerius alone.
Crispin's journey takes him through lawless territories still dedicated to forbidden pagan practices. During the course of that journey, he rescues a young slave girl about to be sacrificed in an annual blood rite, encounters the earthly manifestation of a primordial god of the forest called a zubir, and is beaten senseless by the imperial soldiers sent to escort him to the emperor. Once he arrives in Sarantium, complications continue to accumulate.
Crispin, an outspoken, acerbic man with little left to lose, manages, in his first appearance before the emperor, to challenge a number of commonly held aesthetic assumptions, to secure the dismissal of the reigning chief mosaicist, and to alienate some significant members of the imperial court. Within days of his arrival, he becomes the target of two attempted assassinations and an equally dangerous attempted seduction. Caught in a web of conflicting agendas and incomprehensible intrigues, he must struggle to survive while simultaneously struggling to shape his vision of the mosaic he has been commissioned to create, a mosaic that, should he live to complete it, will be his own greatest legacy to the Sarantium of the future.
Kay enlivens and enriches his fictional portrait of the Byzantine world by showing us that world from the shifting perspectives of cooks, queens, slaves, sorcerers, soldiers, artisans, politicians, and charioteers. (His accounts of chariot racing in the Hippodrome are particularly vivid and well rendered.). Despite the deliberate lack of closure, Sailing to Sarantium is both absorbing and satisfying. If the second volume which will, I hope, appear before too much time has passed is as good as the first, then the Sarantine Mosaic could stand as a benchmark work, one that helps to raise the standards in a genre too often populated by the dull, the derivative, and the second-rate.
Bill Sheehan reviews horror, suspense, and science fiction for Cemetery Dance, The New York Review of Science Fiction, and other publications. He is currently working on a book-length critical study of the fiction of Peter Straub.
Read an Excerpt
The Imperial Post, along with most of the civil positions in the Sarantine Empire after Valerius I died and his nephew, having renamed himself appropriately, took the Golden Throne, was under the hegemony 'of the Master of Offices.
The immensely complex running of the mails--from the recently conquered Majriti deserts and Esperana in the far west to the long, always shifting Bassanid border in the east, and from the northern wildernesses of Karch and Moskav to the deserts of Soriyya and beyond--required a substantial investment of manpower and resources, and no little requisitioning of labour and horses from those rural communities dubiously honoured by having an Imperial Posting Inn located in or near them.
The position of Imperial Courier, charged with the actual carrying of the public mails and court documents, paid only modestly well and involved an almost endless regimen of hard travelling, sometimes through uncertain territory, depending on barbarian or Bassanid activity in a given season. The fact that such positions were avidly solicited, with all the associated bribes, was a reflection of where the position might lead after a few years more than anything else.
The couriers of the Imperial Post were expected to be part-time spiesfor the Quaestor of Imperial Intelligence, and diligent labour in this unspoken part of the job--coupled with rather more of the associated bribes--might see a man appointed to the intelligence service directly, with more risks, less far-ranging travel, and significantly higher recompense. Along with a chance to be on the receiving end, at last, of some of the bribes changing hands.
As one'sdeclining years approached, an appointment from Intelligence back to, say, running a substantial Posting Inn could actually lead to a respectable retirement--especially if one was clever, and the Inn far enough from the City to permit rather more watering of wine and an enhancing of revenues by accepting travellers without the required Permits.
The position of courier was, in short, a legitimate career path for a man with sufficient means to make a start but not enough to be launched by his family in anything more promising.
This, as it happened, was a fair description of the competence and background of Pronoblus Tilliticus. Born with an unfortunately amusing name (a frequently cursed legacy of his mother's grandfather and his mother's unfamiliarity with current army vernacular), with limited skill at law or numbers, and only a modest paternal niche in Sarantine hierarchies, Tilliticus had been told over and again how fortunate he was to have had his mother's cousin's aid in securing a courier's position. His obese cousin, soft rump securely spread on a bench among the clerks in the Imperial Revenue office, had been foremost of those to make this observation at family gatherings.
Tilliticus had been obliged to smile and agree. Many times. He had a gathering-prone family.
In such an oppressive context--his mother was now constantly demanding he choose a useful wife--it was sometimes a relief to leave Sarantium. And now he was on the roads again with a packet of letters, bound for the barbarian Antae's capital city of Varena in Batiara and points en route. He also carried one particular Imperial Packet that came'unusually--directly from the Chancellor himself, with the elaborate Seal of that office, and instructions from the eunuchs to make this delivery with some ceremony.
An important artisan of some kind, he was given to understand. The Emperor was rebuilding the Sanctuary of Jad's Holy Wisdom. Artisans were being summoned to the City from all over the Empire and beyond. It irked Tilliticus: barbarians and rustic provincials were receiving formal invitations and remuneration on a level three or four times his own to participate in this latest Imperial folly.
In early autumn on the good roads north and then west through Trakesia it was hard to preserve an angry mien, however. Even Tilliticus found the weather lifting his spirits. The sun shone mildly overhead. The northern grain had been harvested, and on the slopes as he turned west the vineyards were purple with ripening grapes. Just looking at them gave him a thirst. The Posting Inns on this road were well known to him and they seldom cheated couriers. He lingered a few days at one of them (Let the damned paint-dauber wait for his summons a little!) and feasted on spit-roasted fox, stuffed fat with grapes. A girl he remembered seemed also to enthusiastically remember him. The innkeeper did charge double the price for her exclusive services, but Tilliticus knew he was doing it and saw that as one of the perquisites of a position he dreamed of for himself.
On the last night, however, the girl asked him to take her away, which was simply ridiculous.
Tilliticus refused indignantly and--abetted by a quantity of scarcely watered wine--offered her a lecture about his mother's family's lineage. He exaggerated only slightly; with a country prostitute it was hardly required. She didn't seem to take the chiding with particular good grace and in the morning, riding away, Tilliticus considered whether his affections had been misplaced.
A few days later he was certain they had been. Urgent medical circumstances dictated a short detour north and a further delay of several days at a well-known Hospice of Galinus, where he was treated for the genital infection she had given him.
They bled him, purged him with something that emptied his bowels and stomach violently, made him ingest various unpleasant liquids, shaved his groin, and daubed on a burning, foul-smelling black ointment twice a day. He was instructed to eat only bland foods and to refrain from sexual congress and wine for an unnatural length of time.
Hospices were expensive, and this on, being celebrated, was particularly so. Tilliticus was forced to bribe the chief administrator to record his stay as being for injuries incurred in the course of duties'or else he'd have had to pay the visit out of his own pocket.
Well, a crab-infested chit in a Posting Inn was an injury incurred in the Emperor's service, wasn't it?