Lord of Emperors by Guy Gavriel Kay
Lord of Emperors is the second (and final) novel in Guy Gavriel Kay’s THE SARANTINE MOSAIC duology. The story, set in a pseudo-Byzantine Empire, mostly centers on Crispin, a mosaicist from a neighboring kingdom who’s been commissioned to decorate the ceiling of a new chapel the emperor is building. Against his wishes, Crispin has been drawn into the Sarantine court’s political intrigue. In this second installment, the political turmoil finally comes to a head and Crispin’s life is, once again, drastically altered by events he can’t control. Not only are his and his friends’ lives in danger, but the changing political climate has major consequences for his art.
While reading Sailing to Sarantium, the first book in the THE SARANTINE MOSAIC, I had a hard time believing in the characters and the drama — I thought the plot lacked the world-shaking significance that the characters seemed to be overwhelmed by at every moment. I felt manipulated — like Kay was showing me murder, lust, adultery, shocking brutality, witty repartee, and titillating suggestions to make me feel like there was more going on than there really was. While I liked Kay’s characters, it felt like a big soap opera to me and I was impatient with the story.
The first part of Lord of Emperors is more of the slow drama and introspection that occurred in Sailing to Sarantium — every character analyzing what everyone else says, scrutinizing each gesture, contemplating every look, even reporting how they would think about this word or that gesture when they looked back on it sometime in the future. We’re reminded over and over how subtle and dangerous everybody is:
The room seemed laden and layered with intricacies of past and present and what was to come. Nuances coiling and spreading like incense, subtle and insistent.
There are several sweet and touching scenes, but most of Lord of Emperors is more of the melodrama of Sailing to Sarantium. Finally, about 2/3 of the way through, there is a major upheaval followed by a slow unwinding of its tragic consequences. There are some real heartbreaking scenes in the last third of the novel, and the story ends on a beautifully bittersweet note. It just takes a really long time to get there.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s strength is making his characters come alive. Thus, when the big events finally occur, they really are painful and tragic and we worry about these people’s futures. I cared about Crispin, his queen, the charioteers, and the cook and his apprentice. However, I didn’t feel the need to be privy to every thought they had along the way — how many times do I need to be told that Crispin is thinking that only two women in the world wear a particular perfume? THE SARANTINE MOSAIC should have been trimmed down to just one book — I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
I also think I would have felt more appreciation for THE SARANTINE MOSAIC if I had read it earlier in my acquaintance with Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. His world and characters are so full of life, there’s so much drama and passion, and I admire the character development. At this point in my reading history, however, I can’t help but notice that Kay’s intrusive style, which I’ve always thought of as almost over-the-top, never changes. Now that I’ve read ten of his novels, what I once admired — the type of story, the deep characterization, that particular distinctive prose — starts to become tiresome. If you’re new to Kay, or if you can’t get enough of his style, you’ll have a better experience with THE SARANTINE MOSAIC than I did.
Again I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio production which was narrated by Berny Clark. Dialogue is his strength — I thought it was perfect. His narration is a little too slow (I had to speed him up) and I think some listeners will think it’s also a little bland, but I liked how his reading didn’t elevate Kay’s drama even further.
With Lord of Emperors, Guy Gavriel Kay brings his THE SARANTINE MOSAIC duology to a brilliant conclusion. The sequel to Sailing to Sarantium, Lord of Emperors continues to follow the life of Caius Crispus (Crispin), a mosaicist from the fallen Western empire who is called to Sarantium. Although Crispin repeatedly notes that he is but a mere artist, he is dragged into the world of the court and political intrigue against his will. As a mosaicist, Crispin often must walk the line between offending members of the court and helping them, all the while laboring on his mosaic in Valerius’s new church, what’s essentially Kay’s equivalent of the Hagia Sophia.
Indeed, much of Kay’s world is the functional equivalent of the Byzantine Empire under Justinian I. To any student of history, the parallels should be fairly obvious: the Great Schism, the East-West split, the fall of the West, etc. are all part of the history of Sarantium. Delving deeper, it may be discovered that even the most minute details are relived in THE SARANTINE MOSAIC: Emperor Justin (Valerius) obtained his throne with significant assistance from Justinian I (Valerius II), his nephew. Both served in the Imperial Guard, the Excubitors. I was surprised that Kay was able to stay so faithful to historical events and weave a compelling narrative at the same time.
As usual, Kay’s prose and style are some of my favorite things about his work. Kay has a background in poetry, and as a result his writing carries an almost lyrical lilt. While following Crispin’s story, I was often struck by the excellent word choice and use of sentence structure to change the pacing of the work. At times, his paragraphs would consist of long, flowing, and flowery sentences, while at other times they would contain short, blunt phrases intended to convey a sense of tension or urgency. While I enjoyed the prose of Tigana more, Lord of Emperors has its own strengths. Towards the end of the novel, I was particularly enamored with Kay’s interspersing of the story of a farm laborer into the work; it felt like the perfect analogy for [Here’s a spoiler, highlight if you want to read it] Valerius II’s death because it simultaneously demonstrated both the insignificance of a single life and the impact that a single person/death could have in the world. [End spoiler]
Kat’s review of Sailing to Sarantium mentioned that one of Kay’s strengths is his characters, and I couldn’t possibly agree more with her. Kay does an excellent job in allowing his readers to understand and sympathize with his characters, and each and every one felt unique and alive. As a result, I found myself caring deeply about the protagonist and the court. Interestingly, Lord of Emperors takes a few rather unexpected plot twists and [Here’s a spoiler, highlight if you want to read it] after Valerius was assassinated and his vision for the empire tragically shattered, [End spoiler] I was forced to put down the book for a while and come back to it after finishing another book.
That said, I don’t entirely agree with Kat’s qualms with Kay’s use of drama. In part, this may be because I am new to his works, but on the whole I quite enjoyed his suspense and plot twists. For me, Lord of Emperors was a refreshing and engaging read.
The Sarantine Mosaic — (1998-2000) Publisher: Crispin is a mosaicist, a layer of bright tiles. Still grieving for the family he lost to the plague, he lives only for his arcane craft. But an imperial summons from Valerius the Trakesian to Sarantium, the most magnificent place in the world, is difficult to resist. In a world half-wild and tangled with magic, a journey to Sarantium means a walk into destiny. Bearing with him a deadly secret and a Queen’s seductive promise, guarded only by his own wits and a talisman from an alchemist’s treasury, Crispin sets out for the fabled city. Along the way he will encounter a great beast from the mythic past, and in robbing the zubir of its prize he wins a woman’s devotion and a man’s loyalty — and loses a gift he didn’t know he had until it was gone. Once in this city ruled by intrigue and violence, he must find his own source of power. Struggling to deal with the dangers and seductive lures of the men and woman around him, Crispin does discover it, in a most unusual place — high on the scaffolding of the greatest artwork ever imagined…
For someone who’s unfamiliar to Kay (like me), would you recommend starting with this duology as a good introduction to his style?
As much as I liked The Sarantine Mosaic, I can’t help but feel that Kay’s “Tigana” would be a better introduction to his work; I loved Tigana’s characters and I honestly think the prose is better. If you’re more into fantasy than Kay’s quasi-historical fiction novels, try “The Summer Tree,” the first of Kay’s Fionavar Tapestry series. I haven’t read it yet, but I’ve heard it’s pretty good.
I’ve heard a lot of good things about Tigana, so I think you’re right–I’ll start there. Thanks!
I’d recommend Tigana or A Song for Arbonne.
I’m not crazy about the FIONAVAR series (The Summer Tree, etc), but GGK’s fans love it.