Sailing to Sarantium

by Guy Gavriel Kay

Cover image

Series: Sarantine Mosaic #1
Publisher: HarperPrism
Copyright: 1998
Printing: January 2000
ISBN: 0-06-105990-0
Format: Mass market
Pages: 533

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Crispin is a well-respected mosaicist, a Rhodian, heir to a long tradition of artistic accomplishment. Rhodias is largely in ruins, and the kings that fight over its land are far removed from the emperors of Rhodias at its height, but there's still demand for skilled craftsmanship. Crispin has a partner, assistants, and the opportunity to do at least adequate work. It's not a bad life, or at least wasn't before plague took his wife and daughters while he watched, helpless. Now, he's closed off, angry, and consumed by fatalism and futility.

His partner, Martinian, could never say why, when the imperious and obnoxious courier came from the far-off and half-legendary of Sarantium to summon him to assist with the rebuilding of the Sanctuary of Jad, he pretended not to be himself and pointed the courier at Crispin instead. Nor was Crispin entirely sure why he played along, although the courier was so arrogant and officious that he invited such treatment. He had no intention of going in Martinian's place and name until his friends intervened, united in their conviction that he needed something to focus on and a reason to live.

But nothing about Sarantium is simple. Even before Crispin leaves, the local queen, precariously balancing between warring factions, reveals her own reason to send Crispin to the capital of the far-off empire: using him as a desperate messenger to propose an alliance through marriage. And when he finally arrives, after unexpected perils on the road, he tumbles immediately into the deep complexities of the Sarantine court and its remarkable rulers.

Most of Guy Gavriel Kay's work is historical fiction with the serial numbers partly filed off and some magic added. The degree to which the serial numbers are removed varies by work; here, the history is obvious. Sarantium is Byzantium, fallen Rhodias is Rome, and the emperor Valerius and his former dancer empress Alixana are clearly Justinian and Theodora. Knowing that will provide a lot of context, but can also be distracting, since the temptation to scramble for Wikipedia and line things up with real history is strong. I read this book the first time without knowing the history and this second time knowing it. I think I enjoyed it a bit more on its own terms, instead of as a reflection and reinterpretation. Either way, though, it's one of Kay's best novels, which is saying quite a bit.

Sailing to Sarantium has two very different parts: Crispin's journey to Sarantium, and then what happens when he arrives. The first is a fairly linear travel narrative mixed with old religion, magic, and an experience in the woods that's a little disconnected from the rest of the story. The second is the fast-entangling politics and factionalism of the city itself, which wastes no time pulling Crispin into meetings with the most influential people at court.

In my memory, I liked the Sarantium narrative the best, and found the travel story less significant. Re-reading, I'm not sure I agree with my earlier self. Kay does write some of the best conversations in fiction; if you want to see careful verbal maneuvering or gut reactions with wide-ranging consequences, I can't think of any author who shows both the words and the nuances as well as Kay. He makes the court maneuvering feel truly epic. Watching Crispin's blunt competence cut through the Sarantine court, and seeing him stay focused on his life work despite all those distractions, is a truly rewarding experience. But that second part of the book also has some structural problems, and a few characterization problems.

The structural problem is that Kay wants to tell the same story from multiple angles, viewpoints, and timelines to show the reader every implication of the hornet's nest that Crispin kicks over, since quite a lot happens in the course of one day and night. This mostly works, but it is so laden with flashbacks, foreshadowing, and rewinds that I started losing track of the time relationship between the scenes. Kay is a very skilled author, so he avoids confusing the reader entirely, but I think he still tried too complex of a temporal structure here.

The characterization problem is that I previously wasn't paying as close of attention to Kay's portrayal of women and of male sexual reactions to women. It didn't bother me before; this time, it started getting on my nerves. Yes, this is historical fiction (although limitations on roles for women in history is rather overstated in fiction), and to give Kay credit it does feature a very strong female character in Alixana. But the male protector and female seducer dynamic is very strong, and all the women in this book seem to get shoehorned into it. And perhaps I'm missing some weakness that other men have, but I have never had the sort of overwhelming, thought-destroying reaction to the presence of a seductive woman as Kay's men seem to routinely have in this book. To give Crispin credit, he maneuvers his way through those conversations without doing anything stupid. (Kay's characters very rarely do stupid things, which is refreshing.) But the effort required started undermining my suspension of disbelief. Even making allowances for a culture that might consider a woman with her hair down the equivalent of an entirely nude woman, I simply don't believe that a man who had been married with two daughters, had a long career, and had the life experience Crispin had would have that much difficulty with an aggressively seductive woman that he already doesn't trust.

As a result, as much as I love Kay's political conversational fencing, I enjoyed the travel portion of the book more on this re-read. Crispin is a type of character Kay writes extremely well: an honest, honorable man trying to navigate unfamiliar waters without a lot of context, but with a firm sense of internal morality, a lot of natural intelligence, and a true passion for something. At one point in this book, another character decides to walk away from his current job and follow Crispin wherever he goes. Kay makes you believe that and want to do it yourself. It's a very rewarding experience as a reader to watch a character you can trust find careful, courageous, and tricky solutions to complicated problems.

But I think the best part of this book is Kay's ability to put Crispin's art, the creation of mosaics, on the page in a way that lets the reader viscerally appreciate it. Crispin is passionate about mosaics, about how to make them and how to think about them, and the passion is contagious and forms the heart and soul of this novel. Kay manages to make mosaics overshadow some of the most dramatic politics in history, which says quite a lot. There is almost nothing I love more than reading about talented, passionate people doing things they are extremely good at. I know nothing about mosaic that I haven't read in this book and its sequel, so I have no basis from which to judge the accuracy of Kay's portrayal, but he made me feel like I could appreciate some of the nuance, skill, and design constraints of the art form. It's a wonderful reading experience.

Sailing to Sarantium is best thought of half of a long book that was divided for publication reasons, so don't expect much of an ending here. It can only be read in combination with Lord of Emperors, which you'll want to have on hand when you finish this book so that you can continue the story.

Followed by Lord of Emperors.

Rating: 9 out of 10

Reviewed: 2016-09-30

Last modified and spun 2016-10-25