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Originally posted at FanLit.
Lord of Emperors is the second (and final) novel in Guy Gavriel Kay’s THE SARANTINE MOSAIC duology. The story, set in a pseudo-Byzantine Empire, mostly centers on Crispin, a mosaicist from a neighboring kingdom who’s been commissioned to decorate the ceiling of a new chapel the emperor is building. Against his wishes, Crispin has been drawn into the Sarantine court’s political intrigue. In this second installment, the political turmoil finally comes to a head and Crispin’s life is, once again, drastically altered by events he can’t control. Not only are his and his friends’ lives in danger, but the changing political climate has major consequences for his art.
While reading Sailing to Sarantium, the first book in the THE SARANTINE MOSAIC, I had a hard time believing in the characters and the drama — I thought the plot lacked the world-shaking significance that the characters seemed to be overwhelmed by at every moment. I felt manipulated — like Kay was showing me murder, lust, adultery, shocking brutality, witty repartee, and titillating suggestions to make me feel like there was more going on than there really was. While I liked Kay’s characters, it felt like a big soap opera to me and I was impatient with the story.
The first part of Lord of Emperors is more of the slow drama and introspection that occurred in Sailing to Sarantium — every character analyzing what everyone else says, scrutinizing each gesture, contemplating every look, even reporting how they would think about this word or that gesture when they looked back on it sometime in the future. We’re reminded over and over how subtle and dangerous everybody is:
"The room seemed laden and layered with intricacies of past and present and what was to come. Nuances coiling and spreading like incense, subtle and insistent."
There are several sweet and touching scenes, but most of Lord of Emperors is more of the melodrama of Sailing to Sarantium. Finally, about 2/3 of the way through, there is a major upheaval followed by a slow unwinding of its tragic consequences. There are some real heartbreaking scenes in the last third of the novel, and the story ends on a beautifully bittersweet note. It just takes a really long time to get there.
Guy Gavriel Kay’s strength is making his characters come alive. Thus, when the big events finally occur, they really are painful and tragic and we worry about these people’s futures. I cared about Crispin, his queen, the charioteers, and the cook and his apprentice. However, I didn’t feel the need to be privy to every thought they had along the way — how many times do I need to be told that Crispin is thinking that only two women in the world wear a particular perfume? THE SARANTINE MOSAIC should have been trimmed down to just one book — I would have enjoyed it a lot more.
I also think I would have felt more appreciation for THE SARANTINE MOSAIC if I had read it earlier in my acquaintance with Guy Gavriel Kay’s work. His world and characters are so full of life, there’s so much drama and passion, and I admire the character development. At this point in my reading history, however, I can’t help but notice that Kay’s intrusive style, which I’ve always thought of as almost over-the-top, never changes. Now that I’ve read ten of his novels, what I once admired — the type of story, the deep characterization, that particular distinctive prose — starts to become tiresome. If you’re new to Kay, or if you can’t get enough of his style, you’ll have a better experience with THE SARANTINE MOSAIC than I did.
Again I listened to Audible Frontier’s audio production which was narrated by Berny Clark. Dialogue is his strength — I thought it was perfect. His narration is a little too slow (I had to speed him up) and I think some listeners will think it’s also a little bland, but I liked how his reading didn’t elevate Kay’s drama even further.
5 of 5 people found this review helpful
A mosaicist goes to the big city, the most magnificent city in the world, the capital of the neighboring country which is incidentally intent on invading his war-torn homeland. Here he discovers or should it be rediscovers life, with all its intrigues.
He says all he wants to do is practice his craft, his art, but he is pulled into so much more by the beautiful empress the former dancing girl, her sworn enemy the gorgeous noble woman and of course there is the queen of his own about-to-be-invaded country. It is not a love triangle by any means, for these are powerful and inhumanly intelligent women, but let???s just say that Guy Gavriel Kay does not by any means shy away from describing them as lovely.
These books are more than the story of one man that goes to the city though, we are introduced and follow other people as well, and unlike many other books where the viewpoints shifts around from person to person we never really lose sight of what it is all about. For like any event in history it is all made out of different bits, many people with many different stories come together in a city in one place in time and together their stories and lives are placed next to each other like pieces of glass or stone a ceiling. It is only when we as the reader see it all from a distance that we see the mosaic it has become. Funny that.
5 of 6 people found this review helpful
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Being totally immersed in the world of Sarantium for the last few days, coming back to the real world was a bit of a shock. I loved this book. The characters, the world, the plot, the pacing...everything. Knowing that Mr Kay has no hesitation in killing off his characters resulted in a great deal of anticipation and desire to 'turn that page'. I adored the ending as opposed to the ending of the first book when I was left a bit discombobulated. Caius Crispus aka Crispin has to be one of the best protagonists out there in the world of literature. The women are also quite well developed but lag in comparison to the well fleshed out male characters. Of the side characters, Carullus and Scortius remain my favourites. The humour is deftly dealt with ensuring that the novel is not overladen with gloom and doom. One of the most delightful facets of Mr Kay's writings is the inclusion of the future that some of the characters will have. I am sure that one of them became the ancestor of Rodrigo Belmonte of The Lions of Al-Rassan's fame. Oh and the chariot scenes - absolutely stupendous. Highly recommended. "'Somewhere in the world, just then, a longed-for child was born and somewhere a labourer died, leaving a farm grievously undermanned with the spring fields still to be ploughed and the crops all to be planted. A calamity beyond words. "