Review: Lord of Emperors, Guy Gavriel Kay

"There were those in the Hippodrome that day for whom the racing held more importance than mighty events of war and succession and holy faith. It is always so. The apprentice, decades after, might recall an announcement of war as having taken place the day the chambermaid finally went up to the loft with him. The long-awaited birth of a healthy child will resonate more for parents than the report of an invading army on the border or the consecrating of a sanctuary. . . . The great events of an age appear, to those living through them, as backdrops only to the vastly more compelling dramas of their own lives, and how could it be otherwise?"

Lord of Emperors, Guy Gavriel Kay

The second book in Guy Gavriel Kay's Sarantine Mosaic diptych, Lord of Emperors, marvelously completes the story begun in Sailing to Sarantium. Indeed, it is only upon reading Lord of Emperors that it becomes clear that Sarantium was, in large part, simply setting the stage for the action to follow.

In Sarantium, the mosaicist Caius Crispus journeyed to Sarantium to assist in Valerius II's rebuilding of the Great Sanctuary; the old Sanctuary burnt in the Victory Riots which nearly cost Valerius his throne. (Those familiar with the history of the Byzantine Empire will immediately recognize Valerius as an analogue of Justinian. A basic, encyclopedia-style overview of the history of our world during this time is recommended, though not required, and adds a richer texture to the book's events.) During his journey and arrival at the Sarantine court, Crispin began to come to terms with his grief and anger over losing his family to plague. The tale of his journey crossed that of a number of different people; as the title of the series suggests, the story is structured as a mosaic and composed of a number of different narrators and narratives.

The degree of care behind the crafting of this mosaic is revealed in part by the two books' relationship. For instance, just one of the viewpoint characters from Sarantium never re-appears in the series—because he is dead by the time the main story takes place. All of the rest re-appear later in the diptych, sometimes in a more prominent role than suggested by their first introduction.

This use of characters also complements the plot, which has much to do with how the past affects the present. Lord of Emperors opens with an Eastern doctor, Rustem of Kerakek, saving the life of Shirvan the Great, King of Kings of Bassania. Rustem is then sent to Sarantium to observe for his King, who has the balance of power between the Sarantine Empire and Bassania much in mind—particularly with regard to a possible reconquest of Batiara, the fallen birthplace of the Empire. The question of Batiara is tied up with its Queen, Gisel, fled from an assassination attempt to find herself a pawn at Valerius's court; with Valerius's coolly calculated passion to return the Empire to its days of unified glory; and with other characters' old pains and obsessions—all of which will collide to determine the course of history.

The events of the plot also flow from a major theme of the work, the need to balance the intellect and the emotions. The ability or failure to do this drives the book's events and is reflected in the three central women of the plot, who are so brilliant they cast their own shadow-characters. (While the men of the book are also remarkable and reflect the struggle for balance, they do not drive the events of the book the same way as the women do.) Though the characters reflect themes, they are not mere allegorical stick-figures. Far from it, the major characters are fully three-dimensional, created with a perhaps unusual—but welcome—acknowledgment of the complexities and contradictions of human relationships. Like one character early on, who "wondered . . . how strange people were, that even the fairest day should not be without its sorrow," the reader is likely to experience layers of contrasting emotions toward many of the characters and events of the book.

The theme of balancing intellect and emotions also is a comment on art, a constant presence in Kay's books. I feel that the Sarantine Mosaic, as a work of art, achieves this balance very well, and in a way most suited to my personal taste out of all Kay's novels. The book contains whirlwind sequences of action, heart-stopping moments of suspense and emotion, and the intellectual pleasure seeing it all—structure, plot, characters—fit together. The art within the book—Crispin's mosaics, of course, but also the chariot races and even Strumosus's food—also reflects the interaction between the twin impulses of reason and passion, intellect and emotion.

Art, of course, is not just a comment on or reflection of life, but also an attempt to preserve it. From the characters' recognition of this, it is but a short step to the title, which does not, as one may think, refer to religion:

"And how many people would die in achieving all of this? Is it not vanity? To believe we can act like a god? We aren't. Time claims all of us."

"The Lord of Emperors? It does, but are there no ways to be remembered, doctor, to leave a mark, on stone, not on water? To have . . . been here?"

Art might prevent one's name from being writ on water; however, the literal, medical attempts to preserve life are provided, of course, by Rustem. At the start of Lord of Emperors, I was unsure why another character was being introduced; however, a medical doctor balances the plot and themes nicely—someone to perform the medical techniques, someone to remind everyone what else the struggle for civilization rests upon (a question first raised in Sarantium), and someone whose culture is based on understanding and accepting the interplay of mind and soul. (Rustem is also, fortunately for the balance of intellect and emotion within the work, an interesting and enjoyable person to spend time with.)

As discussed above, the use of characters complements the plot's key concern with the past's effect on the present. The structure of both the book and of the diptych also reflect this. Lord of Emperors is divided internally into two books, each of which focus largely on a single day and night; one centers on a wedding, the other on a chariot race. (As might be inferred from the relatively short period of time covered, the pace of the book is much faster than Sarantium.) The two halves are tied together by the image of litters carried in the night, one dark, the other light, haunting the memories of those who see them, either in person or in the mind's eye.

The overall structure of the Sarantine Mosaic in something like an elaborate spiral, with events reflecting prior events but not paralleling them, as time and people have progressed in the meantime. The best example of this is probably the closing scene of Lord of Emperors, which alone has echoes of at least three different spots in the two books (and which I at first thought out of place, but upon reflection found entirely fitting). This structure is ornamented by small touches which connect it with the larger world, such as the reminder of the significance of history which opens this review, echoed throughout the book:

Somewhere in the world, just then, a longed-for child was born and somewhere a labourer died, leaving a farm grievously undermanned with the spring fields still to be ploughed and the crops all to be planted. A calamity beyond words.

and what may be a small Tolkien homage in Fotius the sandalmaker's reappearance towards the end of the book. One of these touches adds a degree of poignancy to the characters' struggles to leave their mark: as Lord of Emperors takes place, a prosperous merchant has left his tent in the night and wandered into the desert, seeking answers; we know the resulting religion will greatly change Sarantium, as its analogue did Constantinople:

By the time the boy in the chariot retired eighteen years later only two names in the long history of the Sarantium Hippodrome would have won more races, and no one who followed him would do so. There would be three statutes to [him] in the spina to be torn down with all the others, seven hundred years after, when the great changes came.

Time and history move on, and much is lost, but some things may be fortunate enough to survive. Crispin, Valerius, Alixana, Gisel and the rest are vivid enough that their lives will survive at least in my mind, and hopefully in the minds of many others, now and in years to come.

%T   Lord of Emperors
%A   Kay, Guy Gavriel
%C   New York
%I   HarperPrism
%D   2000
%G   0-06-105121-7
%P   531pp
%S   The Sarantine Mosaic
%V   Book Two
%O   hardcover

Copyright July 31, 2000 by Kate Nepveu. Originally posted to rec.arts.sf.written.

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