Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay Review

guy gavriel kay

Let me begin candidly: “Lord of Emperors” only confirms the burgeoning suspicion I had at the end of “Sailing to Sarantium”. The “Sarantine Mosaic” is, for me, one of *the* superior works of prose, plot and imagination, not only in the fantasy genre, but in my reading experience in general. Highly subjective praise indeed you might object, but, from where I’m sitting, well deserved. As such I feel compelled to confess to the obvious: I’ve written a joyfully biased review (somewhat ironically given a recent discussion about a reviewer’s striving for objectivity over on the forums!).

I *can* see things that might niggle a reader in “Lord of Emperors”, not least of which the tenor of the ending (many fans at the dedicated forums at www.brightweavings.com appear to have been disappointed by it). Kay’s style is often obtuse, his character’s motives obscured or difficult to evaluate… I even spotted what might be considered some loose ends in the plotting. One character in particular is left dangling, her potential apparently dissipating in the heat of that bittersweet ending. But what can I say? These difficulties, which always formed an essential part of Kay’s Mosaic for me, added rather than detracted from my reading experience. They heated and flavoured a heady mix of emotional currents and possibilities; characters’ open futures left a taste of the long-term, a necessary denial of complete closure. So bear these things in mind as you read on….

In this second part of the Mosaic we re-join Crispin, the Rhodian mosaicist, in Sarantium, surrounded by faces both familiar and new. Having finally reached his destination he wants nothing more than to engage in the challenges of the mosaic meant for the dome in the Great Sanctuary. He means to render meanings, both personal and universal, in colour and light, working through his grief and satiating a newfound yearning for a posterity.

But Sarantium, Eye of the World, City of Cities, is restless – a war is coming, an invasion of Crispin’s homeland – and his role in its future is not as he expected. His own Queen, Gisel of the Antae, who entrusted him with a secret message not so long ago, has now fled Batiara and taken refuge within the triple walls, has been made a pawn in Sarantine politics. The treacherous Dalenoi, rich, golden and ruined, seek retribution for a murder by fire plotted a decade before, while above them all the Emperior, Valerius II, is working on his own designs for a glorious posterity, sculpting the ebb and flow of power to his own purposes. And of course, there is still the Hippodrome, the centre of Sarantium’s factionalised world where the chariots and charioteers, the Blues and the Greens, continue to compete for glory on many fronts.

The novel begins, however, with a new character whose home lies far east of Sarantium in Bassania. Rustem of Kerakek, a desert physician, has recently found fortune in the world after saving the life of Shirvan, Bassania’s ruthless King of Kings. He, his first wife and son are to be honoured with elevation to the priestly caste, thus securing an undreamt of place in the order of the world…. just as soon, that is, as he has undertaken one final task in the service of his King. But, like Crispin, he is learning that life in the vicinity of powerful man cannot ensure safe fortune or future and that a balance between bringing healing and bringing death is hard to find. Especially, perhaps, if your newfound role is that of a spy in Sarantium…

“Lord of Emperors” does not have the exact same flavour as “Sailing to Sarantium”; instead it fulfils the previous novel’s promise of breadth and movement, thrusting us right to the heart of the actions of the great men and women of Kay’s world. While we are not allowed to forget the importance of small things established in the earlier novel, the resonances of power echo louder here and as war looms important moral choices dominate the preciseness of the prose. Whereas in “Sailing to Sarantium” the power was in emotional journeys, here the pace also gathers in some breathe-catching set pieces, not least amongst which is the chariot race. I’m not usually one for sporting heroics or fast paced chase scenes myself, but as always with Kay, it is not what he tells, but the way he tells it, that stays with you. He takes a scene’s natural momentum and fractures it into half a dozen POV fragments, each with its own emphasis and meaning. He shows you a fantasy history through many well-conceived individuals. And throughout he remains a master of images, emblazoning certain moments – a cloak discarded on a pebble beach, a leather bird in the wet grass, a woman stood at the bottom of a scaffold – that are returned to again and again, acting as indexes of the book’s emotional register.

There is also the small matter of history – the past and the future – that jostles for recognition here. Strands are thrown back and forward for us, gesturing towards the inexplicable mysteries of humanity’s socio-cultural career, our posterities and our futures. A glorious example: At some unmarked point in the book a man called Ashar ibn Ashar rises from a dream, leaves his tent, leaves his people and walks out into the desert and out of the novel. We don’t meet this man again. Except we do, or at least we become aware of his place in the grand scheme. But only in “The Lions of Al-Rassan”, written earlier but chronologically later, where the religion of the Asharites is an analogue for Islam. This grace-note, an almost playful nod to his readers, is only one of the many links made with “Lions” and the future tableau he has already created in other works. It is, I think, a gift of his vision – that he sees the interplay of choice and chance on many different planes and across a vastness of time… and allows a reader these glimpses too. We are made aware of a powerful desire familiar to all men to create a name, an artwork, an event for which we will be remember, and by which the future will judge us.

It is difficult to say, finally, what fuels my strong love for these books – it is many things and it is also just this one. It is an ability to key straight into some collective sense of history, time and experience that I carry around with me. As a historian I am constantly in pursuit of a vision of the past/s left to us by eyewitnesses, frustrated by the gaps and cracks in their patina. Kay gives these witnessed visions, these pasts (or variations on them at least) to us as a fantastical whole. It is the great gift of alternate history done well – that it can take a whisper of a reality, an almost-nothing of an experience, and play it out fully into a dance, a drama, a Tapestry, a Mosaic. It can work upon the numerous strands of our cultural inheritance and highlight both variety and oneness, chance and choice, death and life. When considered thus what, I feel compelled to ask, is the difference between great history and great fantasy if both open these same doors: the ones that show us what we are, what we were and what we can be?

Now go out and read it.

– originally published 8/13/2005

Reader, feminist, archivist, vegan & part time PhD student at Uni of York. Research associate at  on information rights for care leavers (she/her)