Sailing to Sarantium. These two books are one long novel rather than two. The first volume leaves the reader with many unanswered questions and dangling plot lines. After rereading this second volume I can't help but wonder what this duology might have been if Kay had approached them as a single novel. As they are, these novels make for fascinating reading but structurally they don't work as well as they should. It bothered me a lot more on this reread, than it did the first time I read these novels in 2006.
Some time after the end of Sailing to Sarantium the emperor is preparing for war. He has set his mind on reconquering Rhodias and restoring the empire to its former glory. To ensure peace in the east, he has bought off the Bassania, and now diverts funds from the east to finance his expeditionary force. Not everybody feels the emperor's ambitions are achievable, or even a good idea. Plots are brewing in the court, and in the east things are not as quiet as one might wish. While the court plots and manoeuvres, mosaicist Crispin is busy decorating the dome of the emperor's recently finished sanctuary of the sun god Jad. Soon events in the world will distract him from his great work. History approaches another turning point.
Sailing to Sarantium more or less follows history as we know it. Kay moves a few events a bit to better fit the story (most notably the construction of the Hagia Sophia) but not the major flow of history. The climax of the novel is a retelling of the Nika riots that rocked Constantinople in 532 AD. In Lord of Emperors Kay rewrites history completely. It would spoil much of the plot to go into detail here but the invasion of Batiara (Italy) does not go as planned. One of the changes that are of minor importance to the plot, is the rise of a new prophet who will give rise to the Asharite religion. This analogue of Mohammed shows up a few decades earlier than in our timeline. Another nice historical touch is Crispus finding the secret history of Pertiunius (Procopius of Caesarea), in which he details the supposed perversions of the empress.
Most of the cast is familiar, the novel introduces only one major new player. The Bassanid doctor Rustem is sent by his king to Sarantium to spy. He is not cut out to be one however, most of his time is spent being a doctor. He doesn't seem to hold with the western way of healing based on Galenus (Kay gave him another name which I can't remember). Historically, he is the figure who promoted much of Hippocrates' views on medicine, views that would remain influential until the renaissance, but were not particularly likely to improve the patient's chances of survival. He also provides a link to Kay's novel The Lions of Al-Rasan (1995), which is set some six centuries later in Esperaňa/Al-Rasan (Spain/Al-Andalus).
Kay's fascination with the history of the Byzantine empire doesn't end with this novel. He covers some of the same ground in his most recent book Children of Earth and Sky (2016). That novel is set after the fall of the empire, but its presence can still be felt in many of the details of the story. The links between the books, almost all of them little things, is what makes rereading these novels a joy. While I felt he was getting a bit too comfortable with his Mediterranean settings, you can't help but admire his grasp of history.
Given the fact that it is a Byzantine inspired novel, it will come as no surprise that the plot revolves around an attempt to get rid of the emperor. As such, it is not the most original of stories. The characters Kay employs are well drawn, but more or less what you'd expect to find in such a story. Their talents and beauty are extraordinary, their sins and perversions grotesque, their flaws and mistakes spectacular. All means to achieve the goal are considered justified, including murder, intimidation and seduction. All of this is related to the reader by Kay's trademark omniscient narrator. This narrator creates a bit of distance between the reader and the events in the novel, and a sense of inevitability, that drains some of the tension from the story.
That sense of inevitability doesn't do the story any good in the final quarter of the novel. The climax of the novel comes fairly early on, after which events unfold more or less predictably. There is a wave of resignation washing over the story in the final 150 or so pages. The plot falls neatly into place, the flow of history resumes unhindered because it is too costly to resist its current. Kay ties up all the major story lines nicely but I couldn't shake the feeling that the novel petered out a bit.
Lord of Emperors offers everything a reader might wish from a Guy Gavriel Kay novel. Beautiful language, an eye for historical detail, the drama of history unfolding through the eyes of large and small players. I greatly enjoyed the setting in particular. The story itself is appropriately Byzantine, but in its treatment of his characters, the female ones in particular, it is perhaps a bit over the top. The slow afterburn that concludes the novel doesn't do it any favours either. All things considered it is a good but not exceptional novel.
Title: Lord of Emperors
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Format: Mass Market Paperback
First published: 2000