Bookbanter Column: Get Lost in a Good Fantasy Series Part 8: The Sarantine Mosaic (October 12, 2012)

Bestselling author Guy Gavriel Kay got his start in writing in an unusual way, working more as an editor with Christopher Tolkien on the numerous volumes of Lord of the Rings and Middle Earth material J R. R. Tolkien wrote during his lifetime.

His first published series was the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy, which falls into a lot of the pitfalls of a stereotypical fantasy series with some weak characters.

But with the release of Tigana in 1991, he began a journey through many worlds and stories with many more books, which are all kind of linked. Tigana is a quasi-medieval Italy, but with alternate, with numerous fantasy elements.

A Song for Arbonne is alternate-medieval France. The Lions of Al-Rassan is sort of medieval Spain. And The Last Light of the Sun is from the time of the Vikings, in a story you likely haven’t read about before.

And then there’s The Sarantine Mosaic, a duology written about the time of the great city of Byzantium with its powerful king and queen, and the chariot races, and the magic that existed there.

These two books, Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, do an excellent job of showing Kay at his best blending historical fact and fiction with fantasy and easily transport the reader to another world.

In 2010, Guy Gavriel Kay released Under Heaven, a Chinese historical fiction novel with fantasy elements set in the 8th century Tang Dynasty, and plans to release River of Stars in 2013 set approximately 350-400 years after Under Heaven.

Sailing to Sarantium

Sailing to Sarantium, the first in the two-part Sarantine Mosaic, is a picturesque and moving adventure of ancient Byzantium, with Guy Gavriel Kay writing at his best.

This is the story of a talented mosaicist, Crispin, who has lost his wife and children to the plague and is looking for something new in his life.  He is delivered this opportunity, a chance to create something, a project in the distant and renowned city of Sarantium.

As this is the first part of a two-book series, Kay spends a healthy amount of time exploring his main character and exploring the world he has created, which is a lot like that of the ancient world, but also a wonderful fabrication of Kay’s imagination.  Crispin experiences much on his journey to Sarantium: the meeting of an alchemist, a slave girl, and an epiphany where he perhaps comes face to face with an ancient god.  The events serve to change Crispin’s outlook on life, but also to let the reader in on his experiences and ideology.

In Sarantium, he tries to keep to himself and his work, but finds himself drawn into political factions, the emperor’s court, and becomes part of the many who seemingly worship the hippodrome and the great chariot races, whose riders are seen as heroes.  

Sailing to Sarantium is a great example of Kay’s creative writing, his strong and interesting characters, and his imagined but quite believable world.

Lord of Emperors

In the concluding volume of the Sarantine Mosaic, after Sailing to Sarantium, we continue where we left off: talented mosaicist Crispin, now Imperial Mosaicist to Valerius II, is working on a magnificent dome for the Emperor and Empress of Sarantium (a fantasy version of ancient Byzantium and Emperor Justinian and Empress Theodora).

But because this is a large, complicated city, and Crispin is now an important person, he finds himself unavoidably inveigled in plots and conspiracies, as the Emperor plans for a war in Crispin’s homeland.  Then a new character enters the play, Rustem of Kerkakek, a physician from the eastern desert kingdom of Bassania; a reward for saving his emperor’s life.

Now Sarantium has a host of unusual citizens, while Crispin keeps his allies together – a slave girl and mistress, the exiled queen of Antae, Gisel, and this new and enigmatic character, Rustem.

Guy Gavriel Kay continues to build on the momentum and creativity of Sailing to Sarantium, but also introduces new and interesting characters, as well as creating new plotlines that weren’t visible in the first book.

He does what is key to a sequel: building on the story already established, but at the same time taking the reader down new and undiscovered avenues.

Originally published on Forces of Geek.

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