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Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Review by Patrick 2004-09-13

Major Spoilers!

To put it short, I loved this book. Now, to elaborate...I've been a fan of GGK since I read The Fionavar Tapestry a couple of years ago; I received The Lions of Al-Rassan for my birthday this year, and this whetted my apetite more. I loved the style of it...sort of parallel history set in a fantasy world. So, a few weeks ago with a mite bit of cash to spare, I went to Barnes and Noble, and decided to pick up Sailing to Sarantium. Now, I generally get into books very slowly. Rare is the book that immediately grabs my full attention and allows me to slip into it in no time. Sailing to Sarantium was one of those rare books.

Sailing to Sarantium tells the tale of a Mosaicist (one who makes mosaics), Crispin, who is summoned to the imperial capital of Sarantium by the Emperor to take part in the construction of the greatest temple in the world. The story details Crispin's journey to the city, and the intrigues he becomes involved with almost immediately upon arrival. The book's setting takes place a few centuries before the events of Lions of Al-Rassan, and is set in the same world.

The setting just fascinated me...I've not really studied the Byzantine Empire much, I've always been much more into the Republican period of Rome, and not much into the later Empire and its descendants. But the historical parallel was, to my admittedly inexpert eyes, nearly flawless. Nearly every background plot in the book has a real parallel in the Byzantine Empire of the second half of the first millennium (which makes sense, since the book is, as I understand it, meant to be a direct allegory of the reign of Justinian and Theodora): The Victory Riot (the Nika riot) and its aftermath, where the Empress figures prominently in holding the reign together; the theological conflict with the Heladikians (which parallels both the Monophysite-Chalcedonian split of the Fifth Century in scope if not in substance, and to a certain extent the Iconoclastic controversy of the Eighth Century); barbarian tribes ostensibly "civilized" after having invaded part of the empire and settled there (the eastern Goths and later the Slavs in the Balkans); the portrayal of factions in the city; and of course the construction of the temple of Jad's Holy Wisdom (which even bears the name of the real-life Byzantine counterpart, the church of Hagia Sophia)...it was extremely well done.

The portrayals of Valerius and Alixana (Justinian and Theodora) were cleverly done, although of course the author had to use much creative license; after all, an exact allegory wouldn't make very interesting reading, would it? Side Note: "Valerius," the male form of the family name "Valerii," was a very real Roman name of Republican and Imperial times; the Valerii were an ancient Patrician family, and were Rome's traditional military priests, which I found interesting considering that the Emperor Valerius II's uncle and predecessor, Valerius I, was a famous general before ascending the throne. The now barbarian-controlled Batiara is also well done, with its obvious parallels to Italy under the Lombards.

As for the story itself...it was good. I think GGK's style may be a little difficult to deal with at first, especially when he suddenly changes narrative tense, and with unexpected shifts in time that take a while to figure out. The pacing was nicely done, though I did think the parts in Sauradia were a little drawn-out at times, and not enough time was spent on others parts of the journey (for example, I would have liked to see the party traipse through Trakesia, but it seemed like one page they were in Sauradia, and the next at the gates of the city). But what can I say, it fitted the story.

One thing I particularly like about GGK is that, seems to me, he uses less "invented language" in his books than some other authors. I know the Old Tongue and Sindarin are all fine and good, but sometimes it's nice just to read "normal" language without having to remember all sorts of made-up foreign words.

Anyway, to conclude, I thought it was an excellent book, and as soon as I can I'm going to get the sequel, Lord of Emperors. And, dear readers, please forgive me if this review isn't well-written...I'm rather nervous at the moment. Heh.

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