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“Lord of Emperors” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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When I reviewed Guy Gavriel Kay’s Sailing to Sarantium, I said that most of what went on in that book was setup. In Lord of Emperors, we get the payoff. The players behind the political machinations we were introduced to in that book become clear, as do their motivations. As in the first book, Crispin gets thrown in the deep end but manages to navigate remarkably well.

One of Kay’s strengths is worldbuilding, and Lord of Emperors broadens the setting we were introduced to in the first book. We get some glimpses of life in Bassania, and a new major character is a doctor from that country who ends up making his way to Sarantium and treating some very important patients. Although he’s coming in halfway through the story, Rustem is quickly integrated into the plot and given meticulous character development.

Overall, this is a worthy conclusion to the story that began in Sailing to Sarantium. It also gave some new richness to Children of Earth and Sky, which takes place in the same setting hundreds of years later.

“Sailing to Sarantium” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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Many of Guy Gavriel Kay’s novels take place in a version of medieval/Renaissance Europe in which recognizable places and people are supplemented by what he calls “a quarter-turn towards the fantastic.” The first volume in his Sarantine Mosaic duology, Sailing to Sarantium, is no exception, with the magic even being a significant element of the plot.

I had previously read Kay’s Children of Earth and Sky, and while that novel stood on its own, Sailing to Sarantium shed additional light on some of its events. It also shows some hints of things to come, enriching the setting Kay has built.

Another similarity between the Sarantine stories and Children is that the protagonist is an artist. In this case, Crispin is a mosaicist who’s been commissioned to work on the largest and most magnificent temple to Jad the sun god in the world. Kay masterfully describes some of the technical details of mosaic-making without it becoming dry or boring. Activities like setting tiles and examining the angle of light through a window are invested with Crispin’s enthusiasm for his art and awe at the work of his fellow artists.

As with Kay’s other novels, there are complex political machinations going on. We see this maneuvering not just through Crispin’s eyes, but through those of various participants and bystanders. Much of what occurs in Sailing to Sarantium is setup, with the payoff presumably to come in the second half, Lord of Emperors. I’m looking forward to that book and eager to see what choice Crispin will make.

“Children of Earth and Sky” by Guy Gavriel Kay

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Like much of his work, Guy Gavriel Kay’s latest novel is generally classified as “historical fantasy.” Children of Earth and Sky is set in a world very much like Renaissance Europe, but with understated supernatural elements. In interviews, Kay has described this as history “with a quarter-turn to the fantastic.” The most noticeable manifestation of this in Children comes in the form of Danica, a raider whose deceased grandfather still speaks to her and offers her guidance. The influence of the past upon the present is one of the major themes of this novel, and I liked how that theme is made explicit through the device of a character who literally hears the voice of an ancestor speaking in her mind.

Children is set in the same world as Kay’s Sarantine Mosaic duology and his novel The Lions of Al-Rassan, though it takes place about a thousand years later. There are some references to those earlier works in Children, including a brief mention of Al-Rassan itself, but you don’t need to have read them to understand this book.

In a technique that will be familiar to ASOIAF readers, Kay allows us to see the story from the point of view of a fairly large cast of characters. These characters come from different cultures and walks of life, so allowing us to see events through their eyes adds a richness to the story. It also gives us a fuller view of the political intrigues that weave together throughout the novel. One downside is that there are one or two plot threads that seem to get forgotten about later in the story—for example, the Seressini ambassador Orso Faleri’s realization that the Emperor Rodolfo is far more intelligent and cunning than popular opinion give him credit for. After that, I expected a significant chunk of the book to take place at Rodolfo’s court, and was disappointed when it didn’t.

The only Kay book I had read previously was Tigana, which is set in a completely different world. Reading Children of Earth and Sky has piqued my interest in the Sarantine Mosaic stories, and The Lions of Al-Rassan is now on my to-read list.