Thursday, 22 May 2014

Sailing to Sarantium by Guy Gavriel Kay

Guy Gavriel Kay excels at writing those moments when the world stops, the characters hold their breath, and I do too. Those moments when powers beyond comprehension are right in front of you (worldly or supernatural), and no one knows what the outcome will be, where everything hangs on a knife's edge.

In Sailing to Sarantium, there is at least one moment that I think equals anything he's ever written, but other than that, it's not my favourite. I have started this book probably four or five times, and not been grabbed, have put it down or forgotten it. I persevered this time, though, and was rewarded with that moment, and that hooked me enough to keep me reading the rest.

And yet, this just doesn't seem to be as gripping as The Lions of Al-Rassan or Tigana or Under Heaven. The elements are there, but they don't seem to quite gel. It's still interesting, this version of the world under Byzantium, the imperial politics are fascinating, the clash of cultures as they try to extend their borders to match those of the fallen empire. (Rome, naturally. Rhodia, here.)

So what was it that made this a lesser Kay novel for me? It's still well worth a read, but the push wasn't there. Like Under Heaven, this focuses on a man from outside the realms of power, who has to survive when thrust into imperial machinations. But the drive behind him isn't as urgent this time. The dangers not as acute. The potential consequences less dire. And the entire fate of the empire didn't hinge on the immediate events.

A mosaicist is called to the centre of empire, to work on the dome of the new sanctuary the Emperor is having built. Crispin goes when his colleague should have. On the way, he encounters powers beyond his comprehension, and once there, has to make his way in a court in which straightforward speech is rare.

Crispin is an entertaining lead, the Emperor and Empress brilliantly portrayed, the factions at court and within the city entertaining. It isn't that this is a bad book, it's just not as good as I wanted it to be. I will read Lord of Emperors, the sequel, at some point, and see if it takes this particular world to another level.

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