Novel Review - The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay


The Sarantine Mosaic

Guy Gavriel Kay is one of the best fantasy writers in this age, I think. He writes beautifully and his novels, though fantasy, draw deeply from the well of history, which lends them the kind of verisimilitude that you can get from Tolkien or Martin. The Sarantine Mosaic (of which Sailing to Sarantium is the first book, followed by Lord of Emperors ) is the best of his books that I've read, though The Lions of Al Rassan and Tigana are also excellent. I haven't read his most recent, but @dr_mitch assures me it's on par.

The Sarantine Mosaic, a trilogy in two parts that tells the story of Caius Crispus, the Mosaicist who travels to the city of Sarantium to decorate the great dome of the emperor's new church. It is also a retelling - an alternate history retelling - of the story of Justinian and Belisarius, which has been tapped many times before in the world of SF&F ( why-is-genre-fiction-obsessed-with-belisarius?)

Sailing to Sarantium
by Guy Gavriel Kay, 1998, 559 pages

Lord of Emperors
by Guy Gavriel Kay, 2000, 560 pages

Briefly, The Sarantine Mosaic follows the fortunes of a mosaicist named Crispin who travels from rural Batiara to the great city of Sarantium, where he will work on a great mosaic inside the dome of a new church, commissioned by the emperor. Once there, he joins the courtiers, courtesans, soldiers, and charioteers as a pawn in a great game of diplomacy - one that can quickly end in death.

On my first read through, I enjoyed the second book even more than the first, but reading through this one again I'm finding new things to fall in love with in the first, and found the long denouement of the second a little more trying. About 1/3 of the book happens after the climax, and like Peter Jackson after completing a challenging film trilogy, the author seems reluctant to let any of the characters go without saying a long goodbye.

. Sailing, for example, has one of the best descriptions of an encounter with a god that I've read outside of Lovecraftian tradition. Here's a bit of that:

The mist swirled about the road, parted for a moment.
And in that instant Crispin saw something impossible. A shape from tormented dream, from nightmare. His mind slammed down, desperately denying what his eyes had just told him. He heard Vargos croak something that must have been a prayer. Then the fog closed in again like a curtain. Sight was gone. There was still screaming, high pitched, appalling, from the vanished road. The mule trembled in every stiffened limb. He heard the streaming sound of it urinating beside him. The dogs were whining like whipped puppies.

'The numinous,' the philosopher Archilochus of Arethae had written nine hundred years ago, 'is not to be directly apprehended. Indeed, if the gods wish to destroy a man they need only show themselves to him.'

Crispin struggled to barricade his soul behind ancient learning, a desperately conjured image of a marble portico in sunlight, a white-clad, white-bearded teacher serenely illuminating the world for attentive disciples in the most celebrated of the city states of Trakesia.

He failed. Terror consumed him, asserting mastery, dominance, as he followed the girl and the stupefying creature that was... more than he could grasp. A god? The showing forth of one? The numinous? Upwind of them, now, it stank. Things crawled and oozed through the thick, matted fur that hung from its chin, neck, shoulders, even the knees and breast....

Had there been any choice, any kind of volition here, Caius Crispus of Varena, son of Horius Crispus the mason, would have died in that wet cold field.

Good, isn't it? You can feel how the presence of the god warps the world around it and robs mortals of their will - even their ultimate salvation. This is my favourite section in the two books.

This used to be my favourite Kay book, but after more recent readings of The Lions of Al Rassan and Tigana I'm leaning back toward those again. Maybe the truth is that the best Kay book is the last one you read.

4 out of 5 for this one from me.


BTW, the French Canadian edition depicted above has the nicest cover!


  • 1

    Sailing to Sarentium was the first Guy Gavriel Kay I read (and Lord of Emperors the second; I remember rushing to the book store to start reading it immediately once I'd finished Sailing to Sarentium).

    I've not reread much Kay yet (I think Lions of Al Rassan with the book club is the only one) but I am tempted to reread both of these. Though my unread book pile is winking at me from next to the bed.

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    I've read a fair amount of Kay, and I do think this is his best work. A lot of his fantasy is, honestly, just barely fantastical, but this has the most intoxicating mix of history and fantasy.

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