18) Sailing to Sarantium, by Guy Gavriel Kay
I’ve read two very bad novels about Justinian, Belisarius, and seventh-century Constantinople, one by Robert Graves and one by
David Weber Eric Flint and David Drake. This is a damn good novel about them, one I had been meaning to get around to for ages. It is fortuitous (or maybe not completely) that I have been reading it so soon after my own visit to Istanbul two weeks ago; having just been there, I really found Kay’s description of the city, the Hippodrome, and the grand Sanctuary of Holy Wisdom helping me make sense of what I saw and letting me imagine what the place would have been like 1400 years ago. Kay also brings to life the decaying civilisation of the former imperial territories to the west, and the lonely and dangerous land route to the capital. (As for the latter, I also have eerie memories of driving its modern equivalent, the former Highway of Brotherhood and Unity, between Zagreb and Belgrade in a thick winter fog, hoping to avoid the minefields.)
And yet of course this book isn’t ostensibly about Justinian, or Belisarius, or Theodora, or the Byzantine Empire, but about the emperor Valerius, his general Leontes, his wife Alixana, and the empire of Sarantium. It is reasonable to ask if it is worth the hassle of Kay renaming a few personal and place names to tell his story. I think it is. For a start, it liberates him from any obligation to stick too closely to the historical events from which he has drawn his story, and in particular to be a bit more inventive about the religious beliefs and practices of his characters; and I suppose to write about faith and belief as universal human experiences, while separating them from what the reader may know or think about specific religions in our own world. And second, it allows him to inject a fantasy element or two, specifically an alchemist who can create telepathic metal birds, and an intervention from the Old Gods of the type favoured by Lois McMaster Bujold in her most recent novels.
Having raved about the scenery, I am now going to rave about the plot and characters. The core of the book is the story of Crispin the mosaicist’s journey from the western city of Varena (ie Ravenna, Kay’s least opaque renaming) to the capital to decorate the new Sanctuary, overcoming personal tragedy and deadly political conspiracy. But Kay builds up the mosaic of the narrative from lots of little glimpses of perspective as well, in a memorable sequence actually telling one part of the story backwards, each new viewpoint character taking us to an earlier stage of the action. All really well done, and yet the worldbuilding is even better than that.
Well, I really enjoyed this, as I have enjoyed all Kay’s books (apart from his first, coauthored with a more famous writer). I wish I had bought the sequel at the same time as this.
Top UnSuggestion for this book: Knowing God, by J.I. Packer.