Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay

lord-of-emperors-by-guy-gavriel-kay coverGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 2001
Reviewer Rating: five stars
Book Review by David Hart

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This is the second and concluding part of the Sarantine Mosaic, the first being the excellent Sailing to Sarantium. That book told the tale of the mosaicist Caius Crispus, travelling from Varena to Sarantium to decorate the enormous dome of the building that in our world line was Hagia Sophia in Byzantium. Lord of Emperors picks up the story about six months later, with the mosaic almost completed. However Crispin is less central than in Sailing to Sarantium. This book is more about the imperial court in Sarantium; to which, escaping assassination, comes the young queen of Varena. She had hoped to convince the emperor to marry her, so reuniting East and West of the old Rhodian (Roman) empire. But there are other, older tensions surrounding the emperor which must play themselves out.

Reading the paragraph above, and having read Sailing to Sarantium (as you should: this is a continuation rather than a sequel, and is certainly not a stand-alone novel), you may think that is sufficient plot to sustain a novel of some 500 pages. And so it might have been, but there is much, much more. There is a love story or three. Story-threads involving the rival Blue and Green factions, begun in Sailing to Sarantium, are here more prominent. As in our Byzantium, the two factions compete ferociously in the fields of theatre, cookery and rioting; but especially at the Hippodrome, where Ben Hur-like chariot races between the Colours have an enormous following, and successful charioteers are superstars. It is a tribute to Kay’s writing ability that he manages to interest us in the tactics of these races, and to make us care who wins. The story line about the chefs is more gentle, even touching. The animated birds that comprised most of the magical element in Sailing to Sarantium still feature, though less prominently, and make an appearance in the climax of the main plot. Finally there is a substantial sub-plot involving a physician and his family from the east (whose descendants will feature in “The Lions of Al-Rassan” nine centuries later).

You are now probably thinking that all this plotting is overkill; that (as in too many long SF books) the result will be confusion, tedium and disorientation; that just as a thread becomes interesting, the story switches to another, and by the time the thread restarts, you’ve forgotten most of the characters (Brin’s “Brightness Reef” is a good example). Far from it! These sub-plots are woven deftly together, overlapping often enough to retain continuity. More important though is the depth of characterisation. Even the minor characters are made so human and distinctive that there is never any feeling that you are just filling in time waiting for the main characters to reappear. And as for those main characters, they are portrayed with a vividness seldom found in fantasy. Not only is there quality, but also quantity; six or seven characters could be described as principal and it is their conflicts that drive the plot, without the usual good-versus-evil struggle that underlies most other fantasy. Each character is “good” both in his own eyes and in the reader’s. At the end, we retain sympathy for both losers and winners.

In summary, as with all Kay’s work, Lord of Emperors is extremely well written. The story lines are each interesting, are woven together well, and the conclusion is both natural and satisfying. I have only one criticism about the book: there is insufficient magic. Though the Sarantine Mosaic takes place in an alternate universe, the supernatural element is small and almost incidental (though Crispin might disagree!). Unfortunately this is true of all of Kay’s books since his masterwork, the Fionavar Tapestry trilogy. So if your taste in fantasy is for light, action-packed Sword and Sorcery, this is not the book for you. But if you enjoy good writing, about characters you would love to meet, the Sarantine Mosaic is likely to become one of your favorites.

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