Sailing to Sarantium: Historical fantasy

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel KaySailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

The new emperor in Sarantium has a lot to atone for, so he’s building a grand chapel to his god and calling the most famous artisans in the surrounding regions to come work for him. Crispin, a mosaicist from a neighboring country, is one of these. Unhappy since his wife and children died, Crispin doesn’t think he has much to live for anymore, and he doesn’t want to go to Sarantium. But when his young queen, who sits her throne precariously, asks Crispin to carry a secret proposal to the already-married emperor of Sarantium, Crispin is duty-bound. Now he is “sailing to Sarantium,” which means that he’s leaving everything behind to start a promising new life. Along the way, he befriends an alchemist with strange powers, a young woman who’s about to be sacrificed to a god, and a foul-mouthed army officer who loves to watch the chariot races. When Crispin gets to Sarantium, he finds that decorating the biggest dome in the world isn’t the hardest part of his job — it’s navigating Sarantium court politics.

Sailing to Sarantium, the first book in Guy Gavriel Kay’s duology THE SARANTINE MOSAIC, is a historical fantasy loosely based on the Byzantine Empire. It’s a well-written slow-moving character-driven novel that’s full of the violence, sex, political intrigue, passion, and beauty we expect from Kay. If you’re a fan, you’re bound to enjoy this story. I particularly admired the focus on the art of mosaic — both the technique and the way Crispin and his fellow artisans love beauty and are attuned to the play of light, shadow, and color in their environment. I also loved the alchemist’s craft of creating birds of leather and metal and instilling them with personalities (there’s more to it, and it’s cool, but it’d be spoilery to explain further). This was not only a beautiful idea, but it added a nice touch of humor. I also loved the chariot races.

There are several likeable characters in Sailing to Sarantium but they spend more time thinking than doing and they’re really hard to believe in. Like most (maybe all) of Kay’s lead males, Crispin is brilliant, strong, brave, blunt and uncompromising (even when he knows he might be killed for it). The women are even more unbelievable. We’re told that they’re powerful, clever and dangerous, but mostly they go around looking beautiful and haughty, teasing men and speaking in arch tones, and using sex as a weapon. Almost every woman we meet in Sailing to Sarantium, other than Crispin’s mother, tries to seduce Crispin as soon as she meets him, though I’m not sure why.

The political intrigue is a bit over the top, too. As soon as Crispin arrives in Sarantium, he’s somehow unwittingly in the middle of all the maneuvering, with all the important people wanting to talk to him privately, seduce him, or murder him. We are repeatedly told how clever, subtle, and nuanced all these people are, but I’m not convinced. It’s not clear why they are scheming. Most of the interesting intrigue seems to have happened in the past and we never feel the immediate significance of it all, which just makes it feel overdramatized.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsOverall, Sailing to Sarantium is a pleasant story if you’re willing to believe in the characters and the significance of the plot. This was hard for me, but I like Crispin and some of the other characters (e.g., the army officer, the famous chef and his apprentice, and the charioteer) and I’m interested in the mosaic and the birds, so I’m going to move on to the second SARANTINE MOSAIC novel, Lord of Emperors, and hope for a bigger pay-off.

I’m listening to Berny Clark narrate Audible Frontier’s recent production of THE SARANTINE MOSAIC. He has an agreeable voice and his dialogue is truly excellent, but some of his narration is slow and lacks inflection. I actually didn’t mind this because I thought it served to tone down the drama, but readers who’ve enjoyed other audio productions of Guy Gavriel Kay’s work, which have had more dynamic readers, may feel differently. I suggest listening to a sample.

~Kat Hooper


Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay historical fantasy book reviewsSailing to Sarantium is the first in Guy Gavriel Kay’s THE SARANTINE MOSAIC duology. In true Kay fashion, Sailing to Sarantium introduces the reader to an expansively realized world, complex characters, and life-changing events. THE SARANTINE MOSAIC is not strictly historical fiction, but it reads like it. Sarantium, the glorious empire ruled by the thrice exalted emperor, would feel right at home next to histories of ancient Greece or Rome. It was that feeling of reality, however ancient, that kept me eagerly reading.

fantasy book reviews science fiction book reviewsSailing to Sarantium follows Crispin, a master mosaicist who makes a journey to the golden city of Sarantium upon the summons of the Emperor himself. It is also the story of the Emperor and Empress and their plans to change the world. It is also about a girl who was once sold into slavery so her family could survive. Less so it is the story of the young queen of the Antae, a magician and his talking birds, three charioteers, the commander of the Emperor’s armies, and a dancer.

This is just as complicated as it sounds, and constitutes one of the minor issues I had with Sailing to Sarantium. The sheer number of perspectives makes it difficult to really get to know and feel for many of the characters we pop in on. I did, however, enjoy the (sometimes brief) accounts of events unfolding from multiple sources. The changing perspectives give a greater sense of the world as a fully realized thing, and showed the actions of the few main characters effecting many. Even with the changing voices, it was very clear who the main character was: the summoned mosaicist, Caius Crispus (Crispin).

For the majority of the book we follow Crispin, an irritable artist who has a lot to be irritable about. We get to know Crispin and his past fairly well, and get to wonder with him at his future in the capital city of the Empire. Crispin ultimately proves himself a worthy protagonist, if not a particularly happy one. Crispin has the most time to become a well-rounded character, while many others do not. Despite this, most of the other characters (Emperor and Empress included) come across as deep and relevant individuals.

For those few that get less focus and are therefore less explained, we get the idea that they will become important in the next novel. Occasionally this was irksome, mostly because we would get a snippet of their life at a time, and we’re supposed to remember who is who while switching between them often. I did find myself getting the charioteers mixed up, even if their names are fairly dissimilar. I hope that these minor characters now are being set up for further importance in the next installment, and therefore this small issue solves itself.

The other issue with Sailing to Sarantium was the pacing. Many resonant things happen in the lives of the characters, but there wasn’t quite enough to break up the long chapters of drier material. I got a grand sense of Sarantium and its neighbors, but at the price of feeling like I was going to be tested on the material later. This was a minor setback for me as I often enjoy reading histories, and the fantasy element made this one fresh and exciting.

Overall, I thoroughly enjoyed Sailing to Sarantium as very human account of events in the lives of people who lived long ago. Even if they never happened, and the people never lived, it felt as if they did and that feeling carried me happily through the drier sections and less dynamic secondary characters. Upon finishing this volume, I immediately began its sequel, Lord of Emperors, with the hope of seeing what happens to Crispin, his art, and the Empire of Sarantium.

~Skye Walker

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…

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KAT HOOPER, who started this site in June 2007, earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience and psychology at Indiana University (Bloomington) and now teaches and conducts brain research at the University of North Florida. When she reads fiction, she wants to encounter new ideas and lots of imagination. She wants to view the world in a different way. She wants to have her mind blown. She loves beautiful language and has no patience for dull prose, vapid romance, or cheesy dialogue. She prefers complex characterization, intriguing plots, and plenty of action. Favorite authors are Jack Vance, Robin Hobb, Kage Baker, William Gibson, Gene Wolfe, Richard Matheson, and C.S. Lewis.

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SKYE WALKER, who has been on FanLit’s staff since September 2014 (after a brief time on staff as a YA reviewer in 2007-2008), is from Canada. Their HBA in Anthropology and Communications allowed them to write an Honours paper on podcasting as the modern oral tradition of storytelling: something they will talk about at any and all opportunities. Skye is a communications professional in the non-profit sector. These days their favourite authors include Ursula K Le Guin, Bo Bolander, and Chris Wooding. They can be found on social media @tskyewalker

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4 comments

  1. There’s no question that Kay is a national treasure, a man who has successfully merged fantasy & literary into something smarter, more polished, and more engrossing.

    Sailing to Sarantium, though, is the one book of his that I really had to challenge myself to finish. It wasn’t so much the POVs as the pacing. The story was interesting, fascinating even (at times), but hardly what I’d describe as a page-turner. So far I haven’t been able to muster up the energy to tackle Lord of Emperors, so I’ll be curious to see what you have to say about it.

    • Skye Walker /

      I definitely agree, and I did try to address the less than ideal pacing. That being said, I did enjoy Sailing to Sarantium despite that flaw because, for me, it wasn’t something that bothered me over much in the context of the novel. Don’t get me wrong, I am always looking out for a good solid page-turner. Sailing to Sarantium spoke to me as someone who reads histories, and that again mitigated the pacing issue for me as well.

      I hope that sheds a little more light on my justification for rating it a 4 star book! As for Lord of Emperors, so far it has addressed both the issue of the POVs and the pacing, but I’m not done yet – we’ll see how it all plays out!

  2. I’m going to be a party pooper. The Sarantium Mosaic for me was an elegantly written fairy tale. Kay spellbinds with his prose, covering up the fact he’s writing a very conventional story. At its heart are warring nobles and highborn, beauty queens (literally not an ugly or normal one among them), and yes, the hero gets the princess in the end. The chariot races, however, they are another story (ha!)… I would easily recommend Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan or Last Light of the Sun over the Sarantium novels. (Perhaps Under Heaven is equally as good, but like Kat, I’m waiting to get into the mood to read my next Kay.)

    • Oh man, I love the chariot races! I can’t think of any other fantasy author who even tackles competitive sports, let alone with the elegance that Kay manages (sorry JK Rowling). Sports play such a massive role in our society and societies throughout history, and I’ve always found it really bizarre how absent they are from fantasy literature.

      Kay nails the chariot races on every level, from the races themselves to the athletes and fan culture to the interplay with society as a whole. It’s marvelous.

      I could have read a whole book of Kay’s on chariot races.

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