Sailing to Sarantium, by Guy Gavriel Kay

sailing-to-sarantium-by-guy-gavriel-kayGenre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins
Published: 1999
Reviewer Rating: twostars
Book Review by Aaron M. Renn

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I wanted to like this book. I really did. But in the end I can’t help but conclude that it was a pretty disappointing piece of work.

Sailing to Sarantium is volume one of a new trilogy set in a rough analogue of what I guess to be the 6th or 7th century Eastern Roman Empire, where of course Sarantium = Byzantium. It’s more of a historical fiction than a fantasy–though a little magic slips in–and not a particularly effective one. The story is the journey of Caius Crispin from the barbarian fringes of the Empire to Sarantium, where he’s been summoned by the Emperor to create a mosaic for the new temple the Emperor is creating as his great legacy. Well, he wasn’t exactly the one summoned. It was actually Crispin’s partner Martinian, who manages to convince Crispin to go in his place.

I didn’t find Crispin a particularly engaging character. Right away he recuses a damsel in distress from the vile clutches of people less enlightened than himself, setting the pattern of the novel as yet another fantasy where the protagnoist goes blundering into dangerous situations on moral principle, emerging victorious and unscathed. Yawn. Crispin is talented and clever, and uses these traits well thoughout the novel. He’s also somewhat touchingly portrayed as still haunted by the death of his wife from the plague. But he just didn’t grab me, nor did I see the type of changes in him that I would have expected from being uprooted from his home and sailing to Sarantium.

Then there’s the world itself. This novel would have a been a perfect opportunity to show off a lot of historical features about Byzantium. Unfortunately, Kay does not take advantage of it. We learn a few surface facts: the plague ran rampant, there was a Hippodrome where people enjoyed chariot races, etc. But little of depth.

The one place where Kay does come through here was in depicting to some extent the casual cruelty that was common in the late Roman Empire. In the book, people are casually blinded and maimed for minor crimes, or on the Emperor’s whim. Yet even here Kay didn’t truly depict a lot of the horrors the Romans inflicted on people. No Christians fed to the lions. No thousands crucified on the Appian Way. Admittedly, I’m not that familiar with the period in question myself, and much of this might have been done for reasons of historical accuracy. So I guess I can’t complain too much.

I didn’t like the characters or setting, but what about the plot? What plot? This book went nowhere. Sure, we knew Crispin was going to Sarantium to work on a temple. I wanted more. A good mystery. Some type of threat to Crispin or the Empire. Anything. But Kay delivered pretty much nothing. At the very end he attempted to set up a little bit of a political situation, but that effort was too little too late. It’s a road story, with Crispin traveling from one unrelated event to another, unrelated that is, except for that fact that they all take place on his way to Sarantium.

And finally, this book is long. IMO if you are going to write something this long you’d better be able to deliver a story that is well above average, something Kay clearly did not do. And to add insult to injury, this book isn’t really a standalone. It just ends.

To summarize, Sailing to Sarantium was: too long, took place in a boring world, has a marginal plot and marginal characters.

One the plus side, Kay isn’t a hack writer. The words in the book are well written and I didn’t feel like I was being tortured as I read it. It just didn’t engage me at any level.

I will probably not be reading the remaining volumes in this series.

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