The Sarantine Mosaic - a masterpiece of historical fantasy
Sarantium is the most greatest city in the known world. But few can imagine traveling a great distance so to say someone is sailing to Sarantium means they are making a great change and perhaps completely abandoning the life they knew. The mosaicist Crispin is starting that journey both literally and figuratively. He's drifting through life since losing his family in a plague when he receives a commission from the Sarantine Emperor to decorate the ceiling of the great chapel he's having built. This ordinary artist sets out on a journey that will travel through lands steeped in ancient myths and the dangerous heights of imperial politics before finding himself in an artistic work that should be known throughout the known world.
Before Crispin even decides to accept the Emperor's commission his own Queen persuades him that he must go so that he can carry a secret message to the Emperor and hopefully avert an invasion of his homeland. Along the way he picks up some interesting companions as he discovers that at least some of the gods he has depicted in his art have real power. Appalled by what he thinks is backwater superstition, he saves a girl from being sacrificed only to the local deity and finds himself now carrying the weight of all who have forgotten the old gods in this new age of monotheism. In Sarantium itself Crispin comes to the attention of two very different but influential women and is drawn into the intrigues of both the Imperial Court and the fierce rivalry of the chariot teams that are a large part of the city's culture. Nobles, generals, and priests vie for earthly power while Crispin is embroiled in the hidden struggle of ancient gods versus the new. Somehow it all combines within Crispin to create what might be the world's greatest work of art but could as easily be his death.
As usual with Guy Gavriel Kay, in this two book series (Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors) it is the characters' stories that combine into an impressive whole. While Crispin is on a sweeping mental journey his various companions have their own reasons for sailing to Sarantium and their stories are just as interesting although they don't always directly tie into what the "main" plot appears to be. The main point of the book and its conclusion are the individual reader to decide. Is it about the emotional journey of recovering from grief or finding yourself as an artist. Maybe its about the fate of nations in an epic political struggle or about spiritualism and religion. It might even be about the kind of women history remembers and how they are perceived. Its also up to the reader to decide if its more or less tragic than Kay's other stories because there is always someone or something sacrificed before the end of his books.
The historical references are fairly obvious. Constantinople was once the crossroads of the civilized world and when a Byzantine emperor converted to Christianity it became the center of sweeping changes in religious thought and is where the Hagia Sophia was built. The Empress Crispin meets is modeled on Theodora, wife of Justinian. One criticism of Sarantium is that the three women Crispin becomes involved with are all supposedly beautiful, clever, and ambitious but that seems realistic since those are the women history tends to notice. The setting offers a lot for Kay to work with and he draws on much of what we know of the 6th century Constantinople's culture.
On Audible, there are some poor reviews of the narrator Berny Clark, although one noted that as a fan of Kay's work they bought it despite those reviews and wasn't disappointed. They pointed out that you can listen to the sample which they thought was representative of the whole. Part of the problem might be that Sarantium, while overall absorbing, doesn't have as strong a narrative voice compared to Tigana, A Song for Arbonne or The Lions of Al-Rassan. The story isn't as tightly woven as they are either, which is one reason it sprawls across two books, but in Kay's defense there is a lot going on. On the other hand Sarantium combines some of the best of all three so if you like any of his other works you can't go wrong.