Guy Gavriel Kay,
Lord of Emperors
(Earthlight, 2000)

Guy Gavriel Kay concludes his Byzantine-inspired fantasy, The Sarantine Mosaic, with Lord Of Emperors, in which the promising pieces of his grand mosaic of characters and events are displayed in truly glittering array. It becomes clear that Sailing to Sarantium was the carefully laid preparation bed for Lord Of Emperors, and while Kay spreads individual personalities, schemes and ambitions throughout the book, he focuses in particular on a handful of characters and a few seminal events, much as the mosaicist might pick up and closely examine the play of light and colour on a small selection of tiles before carefully placing them in their setting.

We are introduced to a new pivotal character, Rustem, a competent and astute physician, whose attributes lead him to become a key player in the deadly and convoluted games of the high-born. He and the master mosaicist Crispin share many personality traits and are similarly entangled in the secrets of nobility and slaves alike, but their differing viewpoints allow Kay to present anew the intricate, ruthless, seductive and competitive natures of Sarantium's decadent citizens.

Rustem's prescient young son embodies much of the book's fantasy element, his intuition a catalyst for his family's fortune. Pardos, the Batiaran apprentice, acts on an epiphany that impels him to trace Crispin's footsteps to join him in Sarantium. En route he restores the crumbling yet emotive vision of the god which had made such a striking impact on his master and on his arrival in the City he is swept along in the dangerous undercurrents of Sarantine life. The vividly portrayed Empress Alixana, Styliane Daleina and Queen Gisel continue their rivalry for power and recognition, their brilliant manoeuvrings and manipulative machinations eventually dictating the outcome of main events. Shirin, Kasia and Thena•s (wife of Senator Bonosus) serve as paler shadows of the dominant dazzling trio. The men-folk are entwined into the serpentine coils of the designs and desires of the women; although the men issue the orders and hold the reins of power, it is the women who are the undeniable driving force. The author successfully maintains a racing tension, worthy of the Imperial Charioteers, throughout the book -- sweeping us from West to East, chapel to bedchamber, tavern to Court, stadium to Sanctuary; privy to the lives of merchants and dancers, chefs and soldiers, kings and queens.

The theme of immortality is pre-eminent throughout The Sarantine Mosaic, sought through art, deed or conquest; all the protagonists harbour hopes of permanent legacies that may be achieved, denied or irrevocably altered. Kay's narrative occasionally leaps forward in time, permitting the reader the advantage of such foresight as Shaski displays. I found myself thinking of Shelley's Ozymandius: how ultimately fragile may be the grandest, most solidly constructed defiance of mortality. The lives of the rich and powerful and the impoverished peasant are all subject to the whim of fate, whatever their dreams.

Lord Of Emperors completes Kay's visionary mosaic with a broad and encompassing spectrum of colour. His words scan countries, dynasties and religions in the overall picture, then he draws attention to the detail, the individual tesserae which form this spectacular masterpiece -- the complexities of characters and their profound and multi-layered emotions. Like the play of light and shadow on water, the interplay of good and evil is convoluted and elusive, as love and loyalty, ambition and revenge, compassion and betrayal often battle for supremacy in one person, permitting neither predictability or categorisation.

To fully appreciate Kay's skillful blend of history, mythology, fantasy and human folly you must read both books. Fine though it is, to read only Lord Of Emperors would be to see only half the mosaic, missing the clever nuances, shifting depths and overwhelming impact of the full picture. Like all of Kay's books, it displays the consummate artistry of the author to intimately involve his readers in the lives of his characters and allow them to delight in the rarefied atmosphere of his particular fantasy worlds. The Sarantine Mosaic is a superb reflection of the sophisticated and ingenious intrigues of the Byzantine Empire, and the pieces of the plot are placed with the subtle and detailed precision I expect of this particular master craftsman.

[ by Jenny Ivor ]
Rambles: 10 August 2002

Buy it from