The Sarantine Mosaic is a duology, consisting of Sailing to Sarantium and Lord of Emperors, by Guy Gavriel Kay. Kay’s The Lions of Al-Rassan was one of the best books I read last year, so, when I embarked on my plan to read at least 52 books this year, I was keen to include some more of his work. It was hardly a surprise to me then, when I loved both books.
The Sarantine Mosaic covers a few months of the life of a mosaicist. These particular months are during a period of tension (religious, cultural, personal, and miscellaneous) in an analogue of Justinian I’s rule of Constantinople. The titles, and settings, are allusions to W. B. Yeat’s poem, Sailing to Byzantium.
It seems to have become normal for authors to drag their characters’ stories out over eight, ten, or more books, milking the literary creativity (and cash) cow for every drop. While there is undeniably pleasure in returning to the same characters you know and love, it is very refreshing that Kay seems to regard them as something to be played with once (or in this case, twice). Authors like George R. R. Martin, Robert Jordan, and J.R.R. Tolkien may argue that the “tale grew in the telling”, but for Kay, the tale is set from the get go. His books cover the critical incidents in his characters lives and no more. In fact, after finishing two of Kay’s works, I am left wanting more from all the characters. Hardly a bad thing.
Kay’s settings are where he leaves lesser authors in the dirt. Rather than retread the same ground that has been stomped on by every other since Tolkien, Kay mines the depths of history. The Lions of Al-Rassan is set in an analogue of medieval Spain, and the Sarantine Mosaic an analogue of Constantinople. His other work features analogues of China and England. But rather than just take a historical location, Kay fully adapts the setting; many of the characters in his books are adaptations of historical figures. This leads Kay to create incredibly human characters. By working with real tensions and conflicts, and recasting them in a fantastical setting, Kay creates engrossing tales that positively ring with authenticity.
Kay also has a gift for words. While many authors get by with workmanlike prose that gets the story told, you get the sense with Kay that every word has been carefully chosen for fit and context. He is a mosaicist, while some authors are “brickys”. Kay alludes to poetry, history, and carefully chooses his words because he has a deep appreciation of language and culture. It is this appreciation that shines through in his books, and it is this appreciation that makes them spectacular.
Go, read some Guy Gavriel Kay. The reason The Sarantine Mosaic is excellent is the same reason The Lions of Al-Rassan is excellent; Kay is an excellent writer. There is no point critiquing his books on character or plot or setting, I don’t think Kay is capable of fucking these things up. Instead, Kay moves far beyond the bare building blocks of a book. The joy of his work is in the details, the tesserae even.