Lord of Emperors

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Cover image

Series: Sarantine Mosaic #2
Publisher: Eos
Copyright: 2000
Printing: February 2001
ISBN: 0-06-102002-8
Format: Mass market
Pages: 560

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Lord of Emperors is the second half of a work that began with Sailing to Sarantium and is best thought of as a single book split for publishing reasons. You want to read the two together and in order.

As is typical for this sort of two-part work, it's difficult to review the second half without spoilers. I'll be more vague about the plot and the characters than normal, and will mark one bit that's arguably a bit of a spoiler (although I don't think it would affect the enjoyment of the book).

At the end of Sailing to Sarantium, we left Crispin in the great city, oddly and surprisingly entangled with some frighteningly powerful people and some more mundane ones (insofar as anyone is mundane in a Guy Gavriel Kay novel, but more on that in a bit). The opening of Lord of Emperors takes a break from the city to introduce a new people, the Bassanids, and a new character, Rustem of Karakek. While Crispin is still the heart of this story, the thread that binds the entirety of the Sarantine Mosaic together, Rustem is the primary protagonist for much of this book. I had somehow forgotten him completely since my first read of this series many years ago. I have no idea how.

I mentioned in my review of the previous book that one of the joys of reading this series is competence porn: watching the work of someone who is extremely good at what they do, and experiencing vicariously some of the passion and satisfaction they have for their work. Kay's handling of Crispin's mosaics is still the highlight of the series for me, but Rustem's medical practice (and Strumosus, and the chariot races) comes close. Rustem is a brilliant doctor by the standards of the time, utterly frustrated with the incompetence of the Sarantine doctors, but also weaving his own culture's belief in omens and portents into his actions. He's more reserved, more laconic than Crispin, but is another character with focused expertise and a deep internal sense of honor, swept unexpectedly into broader affairs and attempting to navigate them by doing the right thing in each moment. Kay fills this book with people like that, and it's compelling reading.

Rustem's entrance into the city accidentally sets off a complex chain of events that draws together all of the major characters of Sailing to Sarantium and adds a few more. The stakes are no less than war and control of major empires, and here Kay departs firmly from recorded history into his own creation. I had mentioned in the previous review that Justinian and Theodora are the clear inspirations for this story; that remains true, and many other characters are easy to map, but don't expect history to go here the way that it did in our world. Kay's version diverges significantly, and dramatically.

But one of the things I love the most about this book is its focus on the individual acts of courage, empathy, and ethics of each of the characters, even when those acts do not change the course of empires. The palace intrigue happens, and is important, but the individual acts of Kay's large cast get just as much epic narrative attention even if they would never appear in a history book. The most globally significant moment of the book is not the most stirring; that happens slightly earlier, in a chariot race destined to be forgotten by history. And the most touching moment of the book is a moment of connection between two people who would never appear in history, over the life of a third, that matters so much to the reader only because of the careful attention to individual lives and personalities Kay has shown over the course of a hundreds of pages.

A minor spoiler follows in the next paragraph, although I don't think it affects the reading of the book.

One brilliant part of Kay's fiction is that he doesn't have many villains, and goes to some lengths to humanize the actions of nearly everyone in the book. But sometimes the author's deep dislike of one particular character shows through, and here it's Pertennius (the clear analogue of Procopius). In a way, one could say the entirety of the Sarantine Mosaic is a rebuttal of the Secret History. But I think Kay's contrast between Crispin's art (and Scortius's, and Strumosus's) and Pertennius's history has a deeper thematic goal. I came away from this book feeling like the Sarantine Mosaic as a whole stands in contrast to a traditional history, stands against a reduction of people to dates and wars and buildings and governments. Crispin's greatest work attempts to capture emotion, awe, and an inner life. The endlessly complex human relationships shown in this book running beneath the political events occasionally surface in dramatic upheavals, but in Kay's telling the ones that stay below the surface are just as important. And while much of the other art shown in this book differs from Crispin's in being inherently ephemeral, it shares that quality of being the art of life, of complexity, of people in dynamic, changing, situational understanding of the world, exercising competence in some area that may or may not be remembered.

Kay raises to the level of epic the bits of history that don't get recorded, and, in his grand and self-conscious fantasy epic style, encourages the reader to feel those just as deeply as the ones that will have later historical significance. The measure of people, their true inner selves, is often shown in moments that Pertennius would dismiss and consider unworthy of recording in his history.

End minor spoiler.

I think Lord of Emperors is the best part of the Sarantine Mosaic duology. It keeps the same deeply enjoyable view of people doing things they are extremely good at while correcting some of the structural issues in the previous book. Kay continues to use a large cast, and continues to cut between viewpoint characters to show each event from multiple angles, but he has a better grasp of timing and order here than in Sailing to Sarantium. I never got confused about the timeline, thanks in part to more frequent and more linear scene cuts. And Lord of Emperors passes, with flying colors, the hardest test of a novel with a huge number of viewpoint characters: when Kay cuts to a new viewpoint, my reaction is almost always "yes, I wanted to see what they were thinking!" and almost never "wait, no, go back!".

My other main complaint about Sailing to Sarantium was the treatment of women, specifically the irresistibility of female sexual allure. Kay thankfully tones that down a lot here. His treatment of women is still a bit odd — one notices that five women seem to all touch the lives of the same men, and little room is left for Platonic friendship between the genders — but they're somewhat less persistently sexualized. And the women get a great deal of agency in this book, and a great deal of narrative respect.

That said, Lord of Emperors is also emotionally brutal. It's beautifully done, and entirely appropriate to the story, and Kay does provide a denouement that takes away a bit of the sting. But it's still very hard to read in spots if you become as invested in the characters and in the world as I do. Kay is writing epic that borders on tragedy, and uses his full capabilities as a writer to make the reader feel it. I love it, but it's not a book that I want to read too often.

As with nearly all Kay, the Sarantine Mosaic as a whole is intentional, deliberate epic writing, wearing its technique on its sleeve and making no apologies. There is constant foreshadowing, constant attempts to draw larger conclusions or reveal great principles of human nature, and a very open, repeated stress on the greatness and importance of events while they're being described. This works for me, but it doesn't work for everyone. If it doesn't work for you, the Sarantine Mosaic is unlikely to change your mind. But if you're in the mood for that type of story, I think this is one of Kay's best, and Lord of Emperors is the best half of the book.

Rating: 10 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-10-24

Last modified and spun 2016-10-25