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The Sarantine Mosaic by Guy Gavriel Kay
Review by Kamarile 2004-12-20
Not many fantasy epics come in two parts, but Guy Gavriel Kay, as he is always eager to explain in his prologues and epilogues, studiously avoids being derivative of any other fantasy writer. This carefully-crafted uniqueness is the double-edged sword of Kay's writing-- it is at once clever and original, and irritatingly aware of its own cleverness and originality. That said, I enjoyed both parts of the Sarantine Mosaic much more than I did the overblown "Tigana." Kay's faults here are the same as they were in the standalone epic, but this is the work of a much more mature writer.
There IS a lot here that you won't see in much other "high fantasy"-- set in pseudo-Byzantium rather than pseudo-Europe, the protagonists of the story are, for the most part, regular people, rather than wizards or elf warriors or magical pixies. Among these characters, the one that could best be called the hero is an artisan named Caius Crispus-- a middle-aged, middle-class guy whose family has just been killed by a plague. He is commissioned to craft a mosaic in the Imperial capital, and gets caught up in the machinations of the Emperor and the people who inhabit his city. All in all, the concept is unique, the plot is serviceable, and the characters are reasonably well-rounded.
Kay tries to have it both ways with the two-part format-- he limits the length of the story, and yet he refuses to lessen the scope accordingly. While the main players-- Crispin, Valerius, Alixana, Gisel-- are well fleshed-out, too many minor characters are left with arcs unfinished and not having much to do. Kasia's prominence in Book I, for instance, suggests that she is a significant character, and yet she is left without anything to do in Book II. Several plot threads are left unexplained as well-- the encounter with the zubir and the hints of magic in Book I are dropped for the most part in Book II. One wonders, if Kay had bowed to convention and made a trilogy out of "The Sarantine Mosaic," would such details as the presence of Lecanus's bird be explained?
Another flaw in the narrative lies in the use of chronological re-ordering, which works like this. One character will narrate an event, and then a different character will narrate the events leading up to that event... and then maybe ANOTHER character will narrate these same events from his point of view. This really bogs down the action, often at climactic points, and like an extreme slow-motion shot in a movie, it tends to make a lot of dramatic parts seem cheesy and overblown. Instead of telling the same plot points again and again, couldn't Kay have used the extra pages to give Kasia, Carullus, and Vargos something to do?
The language is also a bit jarring sometimes-- there is liberal use of modern-day curse words, such as the f-bomb and other favorites, probably due to an intent to create a "low-fantasy," gritty feel to the world. Instead, the language feels out of place and anachronistic at times. George R. R. Martin makes it work, but for Kay it feels like a young writer trying very, very hard to appear shocking and mature. Kay is too old and experienced for this.
I also mentioned the forced and self-aware cleverness of Kay's writing, which is most obvious in his epilogue (though, thankfully, not as much as in that of Tigana.) Here, he says that he uses fantasy mainly "to examine our own histories." But there is only so much that separates Sarantium from the real-life Byzantine Empire-- any "examination" of history is limited to obvious parallels between the real and the fictional-- the rule of Valerius and Alixana equating with that of Justinian and Theodora is one of the more obvious ones.
Kay is talented enough as a writer to say more than that he has a working knowledge of history. Can't fantasy be used, as science fiction has been, to examine human nature as well as simply historical record?
I've been tough on Kay, but only because he thinks he's hot stuff. Really, I'd recommend this brief series to anyone looking for a well-writen, already-finished bit of reading. Stephen R. Donaldson's "Mordent's Need" is still better, as far as two-parters go, but the Sarantine Mosaic is worth a look as well.
Book I: Sailing to Sarantium
Book II: Lord of Emperors
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