Sunday, May 10, 2015

Sailing to Sarantium - Guy Gavriel Kay

I spent a lot of time on the train in the last couple of weeks so I needed something to read to take with me. I'm currently reading The Grace of Kings by Ken Liu and Dreamsongs by George R.R. Martin, both of which are hefty tomes, so I fished an old paperback out of the book case to read on the train. I've read Sailing to Sarantium, the first part in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic duology for the first time in 2006. Back then I was a bit disappointed with it because I felt I had read half a story. I have read the sequel, Lord of Emperors, not long after finishing my first read of this book in fact, and so that flaw bothers me a bit less. Structurally I still don't think it works that well but Kay makes up for that on other ways.

The empire of Rhodias has fallen and the peninsula that was once its hart is no ruled by an invading tribe whose conversion to the sungod Jad is only skin deep. In the city of Varena, the master mosaicist Martinian receives a summons from Emperor Valerius II of Sarantium, the state in the east that sprung froth from the ancient Rhodian empire. Martinian is an old man however, and he decides the journey is too much for him. Instead he sends his companion Crispus to Sarantium. It will be a dangerous journey that will alter the course of his life forever.

The Sarantine Mosaic is another one of Kay's trademark historical novels that thinly veiled as fantasy. For this set he used the Byzantine Empire under Justinian the Great as an example. During his 38 year rule lasting from 527 till 565 the Byzantine empire reached its greatest expansion. His general Belisarius reconquered parts of the lost western half of the empire, including the city of Rome. His reign is something of a watershed in the history of the empire. It is believed that he was the last emperor to speak Latin as his first language. After his rule, the empire turned to Greek for most purposes and gave up all hope of expanding west. It entered a decline that would last for several centuries. Because of this, Justinian is often called the last Roman.

His accomplishments were not only military. He had a lot of influence on the course of the church. In effect, very little went on without his approval and he was very active in suppressing what he saw as heresy.  The Corpus Juris Civilis was complied during his reign. A work that would influence the development of legal systems in Europe for centuries to come. He is also the man that ordered the construction of the Hagia Sofia, on of the city's most famous landmarks. He was in other words, a man you did not want to cross. Nor, for that matter, was his wife Theodora (Alixana in the novel) who also plays an important role in the novel.

In the first part, the novel follows  history more or less like you can find it in the history books. In the prologue, attention is being paid to the Nika riots (532), an event early in the reign of Justinian that almost cost him his empire. The unstable situation in Italy after the death of Theodoric the Great is mentioned although the outcome is twisted a bit to suit the needs of the story. The Justinian plague also makes an appearance but is moved back in history a few years. Justinian's desire to reconquer Rome is also a driving force of the story. There are lot more bits of history worked into the text, the chariot races, several historical figures and references to the rise of Islam to name a few. One of the things that has always attracted me to Kay's writing is figuring out what is history, where he changes it and how much is simply made up.

Kay does not only get his inspiration from history however. The title of the novel is a direct reference to the poem Sailing to Byzantium by William Butler Yeats. The poem itself appear to have little to do with the story other than that Kay uses the phrase Sailing to Sarantium as an expression that signifies a defining moment in ones life. Leaving to never come back, a decision that can't be undone. I guess you could say the journey is a spiritual experience for Crispin too, although he didn't set out with that in mind, whereas Yeats is clearly looking for it.

As usual there is a bit of magic worked into the stories. In this duology, it is more than a bit in fact. It plays a crucial role in the story. Early on in the novel Crispin encounters a creature from pagan beliefs, leading him to accept there are more powers in the world than just that of Jad (who is based on the Christian god). It vexes me that I haven't been able to find the origin of this creature. I don't think Kay made it up entirely so if anyone knows the origin of this plot element please enlighten me.

As you will have guessed by now I like what Kay did with the historical background a lot but it does get him in trouble as well. Historical views on Justinian swings between the two extremes provided by the most important contemporary reports on him. Interestingly enough they were both written by the same historian, a man named Procopius of Caesarea. One is the official history in which Justinian is praised to high heaven. The other is a secret history in which he is vilified and he and Theodora are accused of all manner of crimes, sins and sexual perversions. It is tempting to works some of the juicy stuff into the story. Sex and violence sells after all. Some of it appears to have made it into the novel, especially where Theodora is concerned.

The women in this novel, not just Alixana, are a bit problematic in many respects. They all play their political games, (the plot is byzantine after all) they are all intelligent and beautiful, they all use sex as a weapon and they all try to seduce the main character Crispin in some way. It gets a bit tiresome and frankly quite unbelievable. Kay does a lot better in that respect in some of his other novels. Byzantine, when used in a review like this, is usually used to describe a plot full of complex, political machinations but, even for a novel set in a reimagined Byzantine empire, the author is pushing it.

As always with Kay, the writing itself is beautiful. He uses an omniscient narrator for the story and frequently moves back and forward in time, especially where story lines come together, to raise the tension. The prologue, especially if one is not familiar with the historical event, is perhaps a bit on the long side but after that Kay drags the reader into the story and makes you want to continue reading. The compelling storytelling becomes a bit of a problem at the end of the novel though. It is clear that the two novels were conceived as one work. The story in this first novel stops quite abruptly and that may be frustrating for readers who do not have the sequel on had. It would have been a big novel to be sure but I do think it might have worked better if it have been one work instead of a novel cut in half.

Sailing to Sarantium is not Kay's best novel. There are too many problems with the structure and the characterization to get anywhere close to Kay at his best. That being said, I do appreciate the handling of the history of the period in this novel, as well as the way Kay tells his story. The book really cannot be judged on its merits without reading the sequel as well but once you have finished this book, there is every reason to read on. Even when he is not at his best, Kay is well worth reading.

Book Details
Title: Sailing to Sarantium
Author: Guy Gavriel Kay
Publisher: Earthlight
Pages: 438
Year: 2002
Language: English
Format: Mass Market Paperback
ISBN: 0-7434-5009-4
First published: 1998

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