This review is a continuation of the discussion started in our previous article. Spoilers have been avoided.
Mary Anne Mohanraj: Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors are two novels that comprise Guy Gavriel Kay's duology, The Sarantine Mosaic. The setting of the two books is modeled on the lands surrounding the Mediterranean Sea shortly after the fall of the Roman Empire. The books' central character, a mosaicist named Crispin, lives and works in the lands that once formed the heart of the Rhodian (Roman) Empire. These lands now are gradually falling back into barbarism under the rule of the invading tribes that shattered the Empire.
Christopher Cobb: The plot of Sailing to Sarantium is set in motion when Crispin receives an invitation to travel to Sarantium, the capital of the still-thriving eastern part of the Empire, to create a mosaic for the dome of a great church being constructed there under the patronage of the Emperor, Valerius II. Sailing to Sarantium chronicles Crispin's journey and his rather sensational arrival at the Sarantine court. Lord of Emperors tells the story of what happens in Sarantium while Crispin is there. He has a role to play in the momentous events of his time, but the scope of the action in the climactic book goes far beyond his own deeds. So that's the bare summary: what would you want to tell a prospective reader about these books?
MM: What interested me most in this story was the central character of Crispin. He's one of Kay's most complex protagonists, and most touching. Crispin is grieving at the beginning of the story; his wife and two young daughters have recently died of plague (a plague that killed one in four people in his homeland). One of the central questions of the set is whether Crispin will ever be able to care about living (and art) again, and that question immediately drew me in. He was brilliant, moody and difficult; a passionate man at heart who had lost his passion for living. His journey towards Sarantium, and then through the intricacies of politics in the city, seemed the heart of the books for me; I think the books are worth reading for his character alone. What did you think of them?
CC: My take on the two novels is that they are brilliant developments of the style and themes Kay has been preoccupied with in his last several novels, which we've just been discussing. Long-time readers of Kay will find themselves on familiar ground, but Kay goes well beyond what he has attempted before. He has created several artist characters in the past, but by making Crispin his protagonist, he gives himself the opportunity to develop further the ideas about the power and purpose of art that he began to elaborate in Tigana and A Song for Arbonne.
MM: That's true -- in the previous works, the singers and other artists were never the primary characters. They tended to be kings and queens and generals ...
CC: As in his previous works he creates complex, passionate, memorable characters who inhabit a richly realized culture. In fact, he spends more time developing characters and cultures in these two books than he ever has before, so the plot isn't always tightly focused. Especially in Lord of Emperors, I sometimes found it a bit too diffuse. On the other hand, this approach to plotting enables him to treat the relations between ordinary people like Crispin, and rulers like Valerius in a fascinating, plausible way. The politics here are more complex and difficult than in his earlier books.
MM: Yes, I think that's really interesting. There's some of that in The Lions of Al Rassan as well, actually -- Jehane's father is a brilliant physician who is almost entirely destroyed by those in power, and it's because he was so good at medicine, at practicing his art. And in Arbonne, two of the three significant musicians/composers are destroyed for their involvement in games of power. Artists who come to the attention of those in power do end up at great risk. So does Kay mean to say that when the ordinary person (though gifted with great skill) intervenes in matters of state, they basically get squished? Is that a fair statement for this work?
CC: No, I don't think they get squished. The intelligent ones survive and even flourish. But they lose their autonomy as artists; they can't make their values as artists triumph over the interests of political powers. And that's something that Kay makes the reader mourn, for so many of his characters in these books are gifted and fascinating artists of many kinds. There's Crispin, of course, but there's also Pardos his apprentice, Zoticus the alchemist, Scortius the charioteer, Strumosus the chef, Rustem the physician, to name only some. All of these characters try to preserve the beauty and integrity of their art in an environment where powerful people want art, and artists, to serve their interests.
MM: They must lose their autonomy as artists -- that's rather a disturbing conclusion, isn't it? Not as idealistic as some of his earlier work, like A Song for Arbonne, where even if some of the musicians die in the process, the art/music does triumph in politics; it makes a real difference. In Sarantium, it's the politics that affects/controls the art, not the other way around. Skill and beauty are allowed, but only when they serve power. As a writer, I find that deeply disturbing, and a troubling conclusion for Kay to come to.
CC: One reason for the ambivalence in these books is that here, Kay is following history. The works of art that survive in the books are the ones that have survived in our own history. Hagia Sofia in Istanbul is the model for Valerius' church with its great dome. The mosaics of Ravenna, in Italy, are the models, even down to some of the details of the pictures, for mosaics in Varena that Crispin has created. Kay is telling a story, in part, about how this art came to be.
MM: I hadn't realized that he was being so true to history with the mosaics; that does make his conclusions a little easier to take.
CC: I think The Sarantine Mosaic is much less idealized in its approach to history than some of his earlier works -- it's part of Kay's trajectory away from high fantasy towards historical realism, I would argue. Nothing is simple in these books. For example, in the first book, art is threatened by the collapse of civilization. Mosaics can't survive when the buildings they ornament are destroyed. Crispin cannot make new mosaics without high-quality glass, which he can no longer obtain. Leontes, commander of the Sarantine armies, makes this point to Crispin late in the first book: "Tell me, how lasting have been the glories of Rhodias, since they could not be defended against the Antae? ... What we build -- even the Emperor's Sanctuary -- we hold precariously and must defend." In the second book, however, art is threatened from within civilization itself by fanaticism, political ambition, and civil strife. I recommend that readers watch carefully for the moment where Crispin says these words back to Leontes: they carry a deep and bitter irony then. Like many of Kay's earlier works, The Sarantine Mosaic contains elements of tragedy.
MM: That sounds right, but that's not the whole story. In the end, I'm not sure it reads as either a triumph or a tragedy.
CC: Whether it's a triumph or a tragedy depends on what you, as a reader, come to value.
MM: Some characters seem to argue that it's the building, the creation that matters, whether or not what you build survives. I'm not sure I'm comfortable with that conclusion -- do you think there is something worthwhile in that, building something even though it will be destroyed?
CC: Whether art is destroyed or not is out of the artists' hands. Some things may be destroyed, some may survive.
MM: I guess part of my problem is that I have trouble accepting that it's really out of the artists' hands; I was never good at accepting defeat and destruction.
CC: I'm not particularly good at that either. Few people are. Kay honors that determination in people, I think, but he calls on us to face the limits of what we can control in our lives. He does show, though, that artists can choose to make other people do the destroying, if they must, by going on with the building, even when the destruction seems certain.
MM: Also, more importantly, destruction and loss aren't the end of the story. I think that's what makes the powerlessness of the little people bearable at all. People learn how to survive, and to live again. Kay shows that in what happens to Crispin in Sailing to Sarantium. During his journey, he comes back from mourning his dead family to wanting to live and to create again, and wanting that despite the powers that threaten his work. And central to that psychological journey is humility before the wonder of creation. He experiences the divine power of nature in a way that he can scarcely comprehend, and he experiences the power of art anew. He bows down both before the zubir, the god of the woods, and an ancient religious mosaic of surpassing artistry. Perhaps it's because I'm not religious myself that I have difficulty accepting Crispin's humble path, but that humility in the end does protect Crispin against despair, and against the political ambitions that threaten art.
CC: Yes; everything that Crispin learns in the first book prepares him to deal with the more complicated world of the second book.
MM: And in the second book other characters must learn the lesson that Crispin has learned, or be destroyed. Rustem, the physician, tells one character who has suffered a terrible loss that she cannot remain as hard and rigid and focused as she does, that she must weep for it, that she has to mourn. This seems a different message than Kay was sending with earlier books; there were several characters who suffered and remained focused, who took that grief and shaped it towards a clear purpose.
CC: And in carrying out that purpose they triumphed, or they were destroyed. The revolutionaries in Tigana are very much that way as they devote their lives to freeing their country. For example, the leader of the revolutionaries, Prince Alessan, quietly takes an oath whenever he drinks his third glass of wine: "Tigana, let my memory of you be like a blade in my soul." He and his men seek to preserve their rigidity of spirit and absolute devotion to their cause.
MM: Yes, and that's Dianora's tragedy, isn't it? She's shaped herself into a blade that must shatter in the end. But now, when this woman tries to do that, she's told not to do so -- that she won't survive if she does. It becomes important to acknowledge your own humanity, and Kay creates a metaphor for that, a delicate golden rose that appears early on in the books; at that point, it serves as a metaphor for the fragility of beauty, a reminder that beauty does not last. But then it reappears over and over again -- the woman ends up accepting what Rustem says, sending him the rose, and calling it an exemplar of all things that must bend, or they will break. The message has changed, and the world is a more survivable place as a result.
CC: Ah, yes. Wow! I had forgotten about the rose. Kay's use of the rose -- the way he repeats an image or an idea from one book to the next but reworks it to vary the impact and meaning of the image -- seems to be emblematic also of his way of making this work itself like a mosaic. Perhaps we should talk a bit more about the political side of the novels? We've made it sound so far as if all the rulers in the book were villainous enemies of art, and that's not really the case.
MM: That's true -- in fact, almost all of the rulers do seem to at least appreciate the value of art, even if they feel it must be subjugated to a greater good. Kay's treatment of power is complex. One of the interesting aspects of this novel is the way that both the men and women are politically active, though perhaps in separate spheres. The women in this set are certainly powerful, and Kay suggests some rather bold things about women's sexuality that he's only hinted at in earlier books.
CC: What do you think that he's saying?
MM: Given that on the one hand, he allows a prostitute to become empress (which might suggest that women need not be limited based on previous sexual activity) ... and on the other, that most avenues to power for women seem to be sexual -- is he sending a mixed message? Aliana (who becomes Alixana when she rises to the throne) starts out involved with the man who becomes Emperor, and rises to power with him. Luckily for her, they both fall deeply in love in the process. Styliane, daughter of the man whom the current Emperor may have killed in the chaos of the last Emperor's death in order to become Emperor himself, is powerful due in part to her family -- but in part also to her beauty, which makes her a prize to be awarded to the golden general, Leontes, which gives her access to more power. Gisel, politically threatened Queen of the northern Antae (Crispin's homeland), with her life at risk in the games of power, decides to use her sexual desirability to become a player in Imperial politics.
CC: It seems that women will use their sexual attractiveness to gain power, if no other routes are open to them; sexual desire (and love) seldom appear in isolation in these books -- there's no romantic ideal here.
MM: What about Shirin, the premier dancer of her time? She is clearly choosy about her lovers, and is never forced to have sex with someone because the plot (and politics) demands it -- and yet she manages to be powerful, in part because of what Aliana/Alixana did before her. Does this mean that Aliana succeeded in part in the sort of thing that Ariane is trying to accomplish in his earlier novel of Arbonne -- creating a space where sex/love doesn't have to be a pawn in games of power?
CC: Yes, I'd certainly agree with that. Even Shirin, though, is not free -- her situation as an object of desire means that she has to be careful how she is seen in relation to all men. Actually, I don't know how far Shirin's skill as a dancer matters -- her power is in her ability to manipulate desire. I think that's something of a problem. Why is Shirin, as an artist -- a dancer -- never shown at her work, when the work of men as artists is so thoroughly investigated through Crispin?
MM: Good point! And men as athletes too -- the races are depicted in great detail, and while we are told that Shirin has power, we never really see why, or how she exerts it.
CC: Even men as cooks ...
MM: Right -- cooks! It's a little irritating ... Yet Kay does give his women a lot of power, even if they have to compromise their sexual desires for it. We do see some of the women exercising power through intelligence, though -- through sharp and careful planning, and quick wits in crisis situations. In the end, it is the three women who he says have created change in the power dynamic; it is the struggle between them that has destroyed one emperor and raised another.
CC: Perhaps; but I don't think they are the only players in that game of power, though they are very active players in that game, certainly.
MM: It's interesting that Kay repeatedly phrases it that way, though -- saying that it all comes down to those three women. Crispin, the outside observer, sometimes pawn in games of power, says that "... he had erred, earlier, seeing this terrible day and night as a clash of two women. He'd been wrong. Saw it now. There were three, not two."
CC: You're right -- Kay does organize the political game as a clash between those women! Another thing I hadn't remembered. I'd agree that the women are very active and shrewd, Aliana especially; they are not at all portrayed as weak, but I'm not sure that they are given the same psychological complexity as the men.
MM: Maybe what he's trying to say, through Crispin, is that the men and women have very different goals in their reaching for power. Both Valerius and Leontes have big dreams -- Valerius wants to reunite the sundered Empire ... Leontes wants to restore the 'true' worship of Jad. But what does Alixana want, except to support Valerius? What does Styliane want, except revenge for her father? And while Gisel wants to preserve her land, what we see most often is that she's in constant danger of her life -- she wants not to die.
CC: That's part of the problem, I think. They are limited as characters by those goals. Although, perhaps Kay suggests that they are better at the dangerous game of politics because they're not confused by grandiose dreams?
MM: Interesting point -- at least one of the men gets into real trouble because he can't acknowledge that his dreams may be too broad ...
CC: But one reason Shirin doesn't go as far as a character as she could is because she doesn't seem to want anything -- thus, her story has nowhere to develop.
MM: Yes, that's a real difficulty. Hmm ... well, much as we love Kay, perhaps he has a few faults. Do you think, overall, that his treatment of women simply reflects the political realities of the times? Or is there a larger failure of vision/understanding?
CC: I think his treatment does reflect the political realities of the times, but we didn't take that as a sufficient excuse when we were talking about Arbonne earlier. I think the failure to really delve into the characters of Aliana or Shirin as artists is telling; Kay clearly cares about art, but he doesn't give them that same richness.
MM: I agree -- though perhaps it would be difficult depicting Aliana and Shirin as dancers/artists without simply falling into sexualizing them even more.
CC: True enough. And though we've criticized Kay somewhat for his handling of female characters, it should be said that Kay's construction of characters is so far above the norm in speculative fiction that even his less well-developed characters have the depth they need to engage the reader's sympathies quite deeply.
MM: Certainly agreed. So, overall -- what did you think of these books? Final words?
CC: Here's my last word on The Sarantine Mosaic: to my mind, all the interest of plot, character, culture, and moral theme that Kay creates for the reader of the Mosaic come together as beautifully as they do because Kay creates it all with an unwearying spirit of love for the spectacle of the world that he records. There's a strong affinity between Crispin, as he works on the great dome, and Kay himself, I think. Kay has learned something of the artist's love for the world from William Butler Yeats. The title of Sailing to Sarantium is a nod to one of Yeats' great poems, "Sailing to Byzantium." But I think the spirit of the books comes more from one of Yeats' last poems, "Lapis Lazuli," which looks on the spectacle of the rise and fall of civilizations with equanimity:
| On their own feet they came, or on shipboard
Camel-back, horse-back, ass-back, mule-back,
Old civilizations put to the sword.
Then they and their wisdom went to rack:
No handiwork of Callimachus,
Who handled marble as if it were bronze,
Made draperies that seemed to rise
When sea-wind swept the corner, stands;
His long lamp chimney shaped like the stem
Of a slender palm, stood but a day;
All things fall and are built again
And those that build them again are gay.
Crispin's fate is not that of Callimachus, but the large spirit of life from the poem infuses the whole of The Sarantine Mosaic. And that's a great thing in a work of fiction. What more would you want to say about the Mosaic?
MM: I think the arc of Crispin's life is brilliant. I think the way Kay handles love is, as always, masterful. And while this isn't the best of his novels in my opinion, it is not the worst either, and it hints, perhaps, at a greater maturity in his work than the previous had shown. Kay really just gets better and better; I can't wait to see what he does next.
CC: I think we've made it clear that this is a work that we both recommend very highly. But we've also indicated that it builds on themes, and to some extent character-types, that Kay has treated in his earlier works. It seems to me that he handles his major themes of art, divided love, women's struggle in society, with increasing sophistication as he goes along. If one hasn't read any Kay at all, should one start with The Sarantine Mosaic?
MM: Oh, no. Definitely not. I think this book will have the most impact if you read it last of the set; so start with Tigana (or perhaps Fionavar, if you're willing to be a little patient with him) and go forward in order. And, because he is perhaps a little repetitive in his characterization at times, you might want to leave a little time between the books, to let them sink in. I suspect that reading them one right after another would leave you a bit blurry in the end. But they're all worth reading; they all reward the effort. Read them all, every single one.
CC: I generally believe that, with an outstanding author, it's best to read her or his books in the order they were written. That way you can grow with the writer, and you can appreciate the later works more in light of the earlier ones. I see The Sarantine Mosaic in light of Tigana and A Song for Arbonne, and I think I appreciate it more because of that. Certainly I think any reader is likely to love The Sarantine Mosaic, but I'd say to someone thinking of picking up these books, "If what you've heard about these books intrigues you, go pick up Tigana. You'll love it, and you'll want to read more Kay. Then pick up The Sarantine Mosaic, and you won't be disappointed."
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