Lord of Emperors
Book Two of The Sarantine Mosaic
by Guy Gavriel Kay
(Earthlight, £6.99, 531 pages, paperback; published 26 March 2001.)
The second and concluding volume of Kay's 'Sarantine Mosaic' is a complex, vivid, powerful book. Set in a faux Byzantium (Sarantium) on the eve of the great reconquests of the lost western empire, it uses the experiences and perspective of a master artisan, Crispin, a mosaicist summoned to the Imperial court to undertake a great commission, to explore the lavish lives, amours and lethal conspiracies that constitute life in the greatest city on earth.
While Crispin labours to complete his great work, decorating the dome of the Emperor's new cathedral, the city around him slowly stirs to life with the approach of spring and the anticipated dispatch of the conquering armies westward. An unwilling confidante to the Empress, and to the exiled Queen of the Antae, a chance friend to the soldiers, dancers and charioteers who dote on the great factional rivalries in the mighty Hippodrome, Crispin sees much, though not all, of the varied plots and affairs that drive matters ever onward. A man with his own past griefs, he is drawn into some entanglements, resists others, acts with what integrity he can muster, and cannot quite resist committing himself to causes he knows he should avoid.
Byzantium seems of late to have exerted an unusally powerful grip on the imaginations of science fiction and fantasy authors (Eric Flint and David Drake's 'Belisarius' sequence is an example). But most of these recreations concentrate on the military aspects of the time. Kay has gone deeper. His work digs out the tangled threads of love, heartache, revenge and ambition, as courtiers, soldiers, clerics, charioteers and artists each in their own fashion strive for success, and to leave some lasting testament to their worth, their existence on earth.
It takes time to realise that this is the real heart of Kay's work. There's enough heartbreak here, enough lost love, tragic folly and lethal error to fill half a dozen other books, but the real centre is the yearning of men and women to send something echoing down the ages, some final testament that will say 'I was here, I did this, and it mattered'; Crispin not least among them.
Kay has always striven for a sense of tragedy in his work, for a measure of loss to balance the victories he hands to his characters, but prior to this it has always seemed an artificial sort of striving, lacking true pathos. Here, he achieves his goal. By creating characters who dare to love deeply, who care and hate passionately but believably, he makes his larger message resonate with real power. When ambitions founder, when hope fails, when art crumbles, you cannot help but care and be deeply moved, because the characters have become real and poignant in their striving for love and immortality.
Furthermore, Kay has also always striven to create clever characters, complex and involved plots. And certainly his plots and characters have been clever; but always the effort was a touch more apparent than the cleverness. Lord of Emperors fulfils his earlier ambitions, delivering a cast of brilliantly quick, intelligent, perceptive people, who scheme deeply and think fast.
At the end, one is left a little breathless at the strength of the work and the lasting impact of the characters. Lord of Emperors is enthralling reading; perhaps not a classic, it is nonetheless head and shoulders above the commonplace, trivial rubbish that clutters the genre.
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© Simeon Shoul 2 June 2001