Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay Review

guy gavriel kay

I have a set of bright memories associated with various of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels: Sitting, aged 13, grief-stricken and sobbing in a cold bath having finished “The Darkest Road”, the final weft in his Fionavar Tapestry; drooping in my early morning lectures five years later having welcomed in the dawn with the last page of his “Lions of Al-Rassan”; throwing myself down into my pillows and grinning, grinning, grinning at the promise of a second book in the Sarantine Mosaic duology. This last is hardly tinted with the same nostalgia, what with it only happening yesterday evening but you take my meaning.

The truth is (as if it isn’t already obvious): I hold that Guy Gavriel Kay is writing some of the most moving, challenging and well-crafted fantasy in the genre and that his work is always worthy of my highest praise. In short, I read his novels with a persistent awe and wonder that goes some way to explaining why I’ve decided to award “Sailing to Sarantium” a 9.5 and why this review will have a distinctly gushing tone. You’ll simply have to forgive me: I have been unashamedly seduced by prose.

Caius Crispus, known to his friends as Crispin, is a vitriolic and volatile man, as inventive in his curses as he is fierce in their delivery. Still, he is a husk of his former self – his beloved wife and daughters are barely two years in the ground, dead of a senseless plague. His only remaining satisfaction is in his art for he is also a master mosaicist, a manipulator of colour and light, living and working in the ruined, conquered land of Batiara under the tribal Antae. These may not be the days of Rhodias, fallen Empire of the West, but there are still contracts to be made, mosaic to be worked – the Antae are beginning to rebuild, commissioning faint shadows of a former, Rhodian glory.

Meanwhile, to the East, although enemies have long beset the Sarantine Empire, the Emperor Valerius II is determined to win Rhodias back from the barbarians who over-ran it. And also to build the greatest Sanctuary to Holy Jad ever created in Sarantium, the Eye of the World, City of Cities. His court is riddled with intrigue and enemies, riven by factions and watched over by the innumerable citizens of the greatest city in the known world. Into such a maelstrom he summons an unwilling Crispin, luring him away from Batiara, commissioning him to design the mosaic for the Great Santuary’s dome, and ultimately drawing him into a world of power, wealth, death, and ultimately, new life.

What to say? Here is flair and glamour, here is intricate plotting and politics, here is emotional depth and spiritual wrangling…everything any number of different fantasy readers could want. But what really sets “Sailing to Sarantium” apart from the crowd is Kay’s prose, which is engrossing and individualistic, mixing the weighty cadence of Tolkien with a contemporary wryness and an unusual lyricism. He is the master of a well-turned sentence. Admittedly, his style is very involved and requires a certain level of concentration from his reader; sentences are often convoluted, meanings often obscured. The phrasing is sometimes flavoured with an archaism that prompts a second glance and a slower read. But, nevertheless, it flows smoothly and bears the mark of careful revision and proof-reading. I often found myself pausing to read sections out loud, going back (especially to the end of the Prologue) and declaiming certain sonorous passages to myself. How to resist when presented with something like this:

“To say of a man that he was sailing to Sarantium was to say that his life was on the cusp of change: poised for emergent greatness, brilliance, fortune – or else at the very precipice of a final and absolute fall as he met something too vast for his capacity.”

Which is really, in a sense, what this first half of the Mosaic is concerned with – Crispin’s winding journey to Sarantium, through pain, to a cusp of change and a choice: to live in the world or die to it? He is a fascinating protagonist, motivated by a perverseness of character and thrust into difficult, moving and often hilarious circumstances. The road he takes from Batiara to Sarantium is littered with danger; he faces ancient traditions, bestial powers and terrible sacrifice as well as the more mundane bed bugs and amorous tavern girls. Yet his world flowers into beauty even as it becomes more fraught with ambiguity and conflict. He gains companions and looses them, makes enemies and then befriends them…and finally arrives at the triple walls of Sarantium forever changed and changing.

But the book is much more than an excellent travel-fantasy or A to B narrative. It is also a piecing together (see the mosaic parallels?) of many lives in a riotous display of history at work. Like Kay’s other post-Tapestry work this is alternate history, marrying chronicle and record with high fantasy in an (wholly successful) attempt to recapture the danger and decadence of the Byzantine Empire at the height of its power. Batiara is recognisably Italy, Rhodias is Rome, Jad is the Christian God, Sarantium is Constantinople and the Great Sanctuary is undoubtedly the Hagia Sophia.

Yet it isn’t simple analogy. Kay is using these historical echoes in thematic strokes, shifting and manipulating events, leading us to consider not only the way history is written but also how collective and personal memory works and how individual lives/fragments come together to create patterns. Patterns of colour and light. Often a chapter will end on a puzzle, a mystery (Kay is good at this…forcing us to work for our answers), while the next opens from the point of view of some completely new and apparently inconsequential individual. Your first instinct is frustration: “Who is this person and why do I care about them? I want to be back with so-and-so!” Then Kay turns you around, he shows you how this person’s life, which seemed so insignificant, is really a piece in the mosaic and that each piece, each fragment, each butcher, baker and candlestick maker has his or her place in this novel. After all, a mosaic is a trick of the eye. It is really only pieces of glass arranged in a pattern that, when seen up close, looks like coloured crazy paving. Step back though and a picture appears, a significant picture. A novel can be the same. Characters, events, motives swirl together; as readers we are swept along; we are eager to be gratified. We want our favourite characters to do this, do that, fall in love with another character and so on. We forget the hugeness of what a “culture” or a “society” is…we accept the microcosm. The structure of “Sailing to Sarantium” reminded me to see the big thematic picture and to experience a vibrant world fully in all its variety.

And as always, beneath the riddle of the plot, is the universality of emotional and spiritual experience that Kay does so well; he has a gift for capturing both the multiplicity/difference and unity in human experience. He is the quintessential multi-cultural, liberalised fantasy author whether in the guise of Weaver (as in his early work) or as Mosaicist (in his most recent novels). I cried my way through the final pages and am confident that “Sailing to Sarantium” will count amongst my favourite fantasy novels for the decades to come.

– originally published 8/1/2005

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